MIDNIGHT MOVIES LAUNCH NIGHT

Midnight Movies poster

Event: Midnight Movies launch night

Date: 29 February 2008

Location: Curzon Soho

Showing: Society (1989)

A midnight movie is not just a film shown at midnight. Bridget Jones’ Diary shown at midnight would not be a midnight movie. Neither would a midnight screening of Time Regained – not unless the crowd were told to speak in French and to bash a teaspoon against a teacup when a compere gave the cue.

From its origins in 1950s America, the midnight movie slot has always been given over to low-budget, horror and trash. Top scores if the film is all three. Rather like the graveyard shift on radio, the midnight movie slot is meant for the niche or risqué stuff admired by nighthawks, insomniacs and the downright crazy.

The midnight movie concept was dead by the mid-80s. Until then late-night movie-goers had been able to feast on the horrors and delights of films such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, going back time and time again for more. But things changed when the big studios saw the midnight screenings as an effective marketing tool and tried to reverse the bottom-up creation of cult films by releasing their movies at midnight in the hope of attracting an audience as loyal as the fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example.

Rocky is perhaps the most famous and persistent example of the midnight movie, its fans still meeting at cinemas the world over to watch a midnight screening and act out scenes from the film. Their crude and irreverent heckling of the characters in the film often reaches anarchic proportions and, as any visitor to a Rocky event can tell you, makes for a damn good night.

It is this spirit of fun and spontaneity that inspired the folk at Curzon Soho to bring back the midnight movie. But rather than show just the old classics, the events team hope to screen all kinds of films that reflect the spirit of the midnight movie. ‘We wanted to put on a night that people wandering around Soho after a few drinks could come to and enjoy. The first two screenings are of US films but we want to move away from just that and start showing European films, for example, which still have that gritty, grimy feel to them’, said Simon Howarth of Curzon.

Their first offering, Society, hit the right spot. Gory, dark and camp in equal measure, the film’s 1980s styling and casting of Baywatch goodie-goodie Billy Warlock lend it an added veneer of trash. By most people’s standards it is not a good movie and at any other screening could be justifiedly panned. But it is just right for the midnight slot, which turns its shortcomings into merits.

As a prelude to the screening the Curzon’s main bar area was given over to a party complete with free beer (well, one free beer per head) and hosts and hostesses dressed up like zombies. The dark 80s tunes, such as the theme from Twin Peaks, provided a suitable soundtrack to the revelling of cinema-goers who had been able to leisurely make their way to the Curzon and who were enjoying meeting and greeting other midnight film buffs.

With bums on cinema seats, author of The Cult Film Reader and director of the Cult Film Archive Xavier Mendik introduced the screening, explaining how Society showed the ruptures in the Reaganesque Conservatism of the 1980s in the US. It was interesting and informed but it was not quite the right time for that kind of talk. The crowd was loose and ready to heckle. They were obviously discerning film fans, and would have been interested in what Xavier had to say if it had been earlier that day or when the hangover subsided the next. But having him speak then was a bit like casting Laurence Olivier in a Carry On film. There were a few guilt-riddled heckles and some whoops and cheers but a quirkier, cheekier kind of compere would have been better suited to the mood of the audience. Statuesque and matronesque glamster Dolly Rocket of the Flash Monkey burlesque club came to mind as an ideal candidate. Or Vampira.

But compere queries aside, the return of Midnight Movies captured the spirit of the original phenomenon. It has obviously struck a chord with Londoners who were so eager to reserve for the next event (a screening of the Grindhouse Double Bill in its full glory) that an extra screening has been announced. Now we just have to sit back and wait for Odeon and Cineworld to announce that they are doing the same.

Lisa Williams

SHORT CUTS: WONDERWOMEN

Kathy Acker

Fifteen years ago the Spice Girls flogged the concept of Girl Power, or ‘feminism with a Wonderbra’, as they described it. Shortly before her death ten years ago Kathy Acker – the pro-sex feminist writer – interviewed the group for The Guardian. She was bewildered by their political naïveté but charmed by the positivity and bravery with which they took on the music industry without a thesis to their names.

So what would Acker think about the showcase of films either written, directed, produced or featuring women shown during the London Short Film Festival, a few miles away from the O2 Arena where the Spice Girls are playing one of their reunion shows? Certainly the films chosen by Sarah Wood and Selina Robertson of Club des Femmes would have received her thumbs up. After all, they included Fuses, the sexually incendiary film depicting Acker’s friend and ally Carolee Schneemann having graphic, loving sex with her then partner.

The amazing thing about Fuses is that it still has the power to shock, embarrass and delight. Not for any Nuts or Loaded wet dream could a woman look so content in a carnal setting. Not only that, but shots spliced into the sex scenes reveal she’s in a happy relationship which extends out of the bedroom. This woman has it all – both the feminism and the Wonderbra.

Moving forward in time, Acker’s own screenplay for Variety shows how, despite the ardent women’s movement of the previous two decades, the 1980s could still be an oppressive place for women. The female characters are forced to make a living as strippers and barmaids for lack of work, the photographer having to graft in a bar full of lecherous men while waiting for a sale, while lead character Christine is looking for a job that doesn’t list having a big bust as its main requirement.

Variety is beautifully shot as should be expected from a film starring cult photographer Nan Goldin. But while the supporting female characters are sharply drawn, in particular through their discussions of their lives and loves, the depiction of Christine remains blurred. She somnambulates through life, aimlessly smoking cigarettes in the foyer of the porn cinema in which she begins to work, having an answerphone relationship with her mother and a nonchalantly half-hearted relationship with a man who couldn’t care less about her personal development.

As she becomes more involved with her new job and the mysterious businessman who frequents the cinema, her feelings and desires become clearer but more problematic. She begins to follow him around the dark underworld of the city in which he works, watching him from afar. Stalking him as far as Staten Island, which he visits for a shady business trip, she takes the motel room next to his and goes through his things while he’s out. Rifling through his bag she finds a hardcore porn rag and is amazed by the pictures she sees.

In this way, Acker questions the male gaze of cinematic tradition: Christine is the woman looking at the man looking at the woman. In the same way, she begins to compose erotic prose which she recites to her distant boyfriend. But it isn’t until she trusses herself up in a sexy outfit and admires herself in the mirror that the gaze comes full circle and she controls both the gaze and the reflection. Or in other words, the feminism and the Wonderbra.

Go forward twenty years and the short films showcasing either female characters or females behind the camera show a drastically different world. Screened as part of Dazzle Short Film Label’s programme ‘Lipstick Cherry’, 100th of a Second depicts a front-line war photographer winning a prize for a shot showing the horrific killing of a child. It is a chilling look at the media’s representation of war zones and the conflict between the need to document and the temptation to exploit. Is it her female sensitivities that riddle her with guilt or the pure horror of the memories that haunt her? Things twenty years on are not so clear-cut.

In ‘Femmes Fantastique’ – a programme of new shorts depicting women with attitude, collected by Wood and Robertson – A Short Collection of Hilary Flamingo’s Dream Vocations shows a woman at work. She escapes the factory where she works by thinking of other jobs she would like to do. A wig designer, painter of men’s bare bottoms or showgirl are just some of the colourful ‘moving photos’ of Hilary’s imagination. Not anchored in the viewer’s mind by her marital status or sexual availability she is free to play out her fantasies without being judged as silly or childish. Hilary is a lovable, flamboyant character, proving LSFF organiser Kate Taylor’s belief that ‘interesting female characters on screen are as important as those behind the cameras’.

Similarly the character in When the Telescope Came – which won the Club des Femmes award – lets herself be taken away by her imagination in a beautifully rendered animation. Elsewhere, New Love depicts a world where beautiful women pay to court and have sex with beautiful men – a helpful set-up for the protagonist whose short memory makes it nearly impossible for her to form lasting relationships. The last couple of years have seen a growth in the number of artistic depictions of women who pay for sex and this was an interesting development of the trend as the woman in question was not fulfilling an emotional need but a practical one.

From a feminist point of view there is still more fighting to be done for and on behalf of women. It was disappointing not to see any films tackling things like sex trade trafficking, the appallingly low conviction rate for rape, and the disregard for women needing to work while bringing up children. But having said that, the overwhelming majority of films made by women shown during the festival were bold, thoughtful and entertaining. They showed that the emancipated women of today don’t have to choose between active feminism and Wonderbras. Now women can concentrate on what interests and excites them – be that astrology, sex, war or cupcakes. Acker certainly would be proud.

Lisa Williams

MAKING CINEMA MAGICAL AGAIN: SECRET CINEMA LAUNCH

Secret Cinema December 07

Photo © Lisa Williams

Event: Secret Cinema

Date: 16 December 2008

Location: The Vaults in London Bridge, London

Organised by: Future Shorts

Signing up for Secret Cinema was a leap of faith. Accustomed to making informed choices about which screenings to attend, I placed blind trust in those behind Secret Cinema (Future Shorts/Tartan Video) to come up with something worth passing Sunday evening doing.

Firstly I had received an email with instructions and directions for the day. But this didn’t arrive ’til five hours before the event. Not only that, but the directions instructed us to bring warm clothes. Where were they taking us?! Would we be watching a film in a wind tunnel? Perhaps I was about to watch a silent movie reflected in the cold water of the River Thames? I was sceptical.

But walking towards the venue I felt a shiver of excitement. I knew I was in good hands and I liked the fact that I had no idea what I was going to be watching. Turning the corner I found the alleyway next to a London Bridge boozer teaming with people in fur coats and hoodies, and a Secret Cinema logo projected onto a brick wall. Adding to a sense of privilege about being in-the-know, my existential twins and I waited around by some fenced gates while those without tickets were turned away.

When we were let in, my pathway was stalled by an errant skateboarder who lurched in front of me, then fell to the ground. Stranger still was a high-school locker installed by the entrance, and further on a television showing a Fox-style news broadcast.

Moving in under the railway arch was a mock classroom past which several more skateboarders whizzed. Catching site of a skate video projected onto a wall it became clear that we were about to see Paranoid Park – the latest Gus Van Sant film. Where better to see a film about a death on a railway track than in the dank underbelly of London Bridge? Obviously a skate park in Portland would have been spot on, but given the circumstances they had got it just right.

Relaxing into the closely-packed plastic seating I was relieved to have bypassed the overpriced sodas and garish bowling-alley style décor of the cinema. Maybe, just maybe Secret Cinema could bring back the sense of magic to the cinema-going experience, and if not then it certainly felt like it had more soul than the local multiplex.

My one qualm was that it might be a cheap shot at publicity. Rather like the drag queens hired to rev up the audience at showings of Showgirls. Not so, according to Fabien Riggall, founder of Future Shorts and the one behind the conception of Secret Cinema. ‘It’s not going to be just pre-releases. It’s really going to be a mixture of strong pre-releases, thought-provoking animation and old, classic films. It is about showing films in a different environment as cinema-going has become so formulaic in my view’.

And perhaps Secret Cinema can tempt even the most discerning film buffs away from their carefully considered to-see list and into the dark corners of the city where mystery and intrigue still rule.

Lisa Williams

SHORT CUTS: THE LONDON SHORT FILM FESTIVAL

Philip Ilson and Kate Taylor

London Short Film Festival

4-14 January 2008

ICA, Curzon Soho, Roxy Bar and Screen

LSFF website

This year’s London Short Film Festival is the fifth organised by Halloween, but the first to run under that name. Halloween co-founder Philip Ilson explains: ‘When we started the festival four years ago we were actually going to call it the London Short Film Festival but we thought that by calling it Halloween – because we’d been using the name for a few years – it’d help to have that kind of ongoing connection with what we’d been doing. And also I think the pressure would have been on quite a lot at the beginning if we’d called it the LSFF, which has happened this year. I think there is a certain amount of pressure for us to deliver something that might be considered more mainstream than what we’ve done in the past. But it’s still us, and the only difference this year is that there are going to be more industry-based events because we’re linking up with people like the Film Council and Shooting People.’

Overall the programme follows the same template as in previous years, with shorts gathered into loosely themed selections – comedy, horror, love, experimental, and a Fortean Times-sponsored night of general weird stuff. Turntable Café will be organising a night of British-centric visuals while Darryl’s Hard Liquor & Porn Film Festival are coming all the way from Toronto to present work. In spite of the name, it’s not a porn festival, but rather a comedy event: Darryl’s co-director Jill Rosenberg’s entry at last year’s Halloween was Origasmi, an origami sex film.

Music is again an important feature of this year’s festival with events featuring XX Teens and The Young Knives. Says Ilson: ‘We link up with organisations that we like that are doing interesting things. Transgressive Records are an independent label, they’ve got lots of up-and-coming young bands like Foals, Jeremy Warmsley and The Young Knives. The Young Knives got a few filmmakers to make a video for each track of their new album. We’re going to premiere all the videos – which will be on the album released later that month – and the band will do a live set afterwards.’

As in previous years, there will be retrospectives of directors whose films have been regularly screened at Halloween events. This year, the focus is on Asif Kapadia, who presented his masterful second feature Far North at the London Film Festival in October, and Jes Benstock, who won the award for best film at the first Halloween festival. Benstock gained notoriety for his music videos, including one for Orbital, but over the years he has become more of a documentary filmmaker, though this is not a path he had deliberately chosen. ‘Creative life tends not to work in straight lines’, explains Benstock. ‘I started with a half-hour film called Poof, which wasn’t a documentary as such but was real-life filming in real time. But it wasn’t well received so I thought I’d do something else for a while. I did a lot of interactive art and art installations, and then made videos for live music shows. Then some people I knew were doing an audiovisual programme for ITV with VJs and DJs. I’d been VJ-ing for a while, but this was a chance to create a ten-minute audiovisual work with no editorial control. It was a chance for me to experiment. The first one I did was Baby Dreams, which was a conjecture of what my then three-month-old baby son would dream about. There was a lot of colour and animated toys as well as people and family gatherings. I found it really interesting so I did another called Phosphenes, which are what you see when you close your eyes. It was a ten-minute animation with the music of Professor Oz. I really liked the idea of combining the visual elements of animation with documentary so I moved in that direction.’

This year, the festival’s women’s award will be given by Club des Femmes. Sarah Wood, who won Halloween’s best film award last year with I Want To Be A Secretary, runs Club des Femmes with Selina Robertson, a former programmer at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Wood and Robertson started Club des Femmes to show experimental work by women filmmakers. ‘We use a lot of old artists’ films which we want to re-contextualise. We choose work that is innovative, pioneering and adventurous so we match up well with what Philip does with Halloween’, says Wood. ‘For the festival we wanted to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Kathy Acker. We love her and we thought it would be interesting to show films that pay tribute to her work and combine that with readings of her writings. She wrote about inappropriate and radical sex, so we’ve chosen films with the same kind of sex-positive ideas.’

The festival has always been an occasion to link up with organisations outside of London and to showcase their work. Last year, 7inchCinema came down from Birmingham and this year it’s the turn of Bristol Meth, a collective of artists led by David Hopkinson. ‘Bristol Meth is based around three films made in Bristol’, says Hopkinson. ‘One is my video art piece called Cutting Up My Friends, which is about the mix of people who are part of the Cube cinema. Then there’s a film called Get Good, an extended music video by Frí ní§ois and Rozi Plain, who are musicians and animators. It’s a very sweet love story about the start of a relationship but it’s also very experimental. The third, Don’t Do Tricks, is a skate film by Lady Lucy and James Canyon. It’s a day in the life of a feminist skateboarder. All the films are underground, self-funded indie films made in Bristol around the same time, featuring some of the same people and locations. I put them together as I thought they were interesting as a trilogy. They’re often shown accompanied by live music. They show the cross-fertilisation going on in the underground Bristol scene. It’s all based around the Cube cinema, which is a very important meeting point for creative people in Bristol.’

With such an array of juicy delights, it looks like the London Short Film Festival will live up to its bigger, bolder name: it’s good to see that, despite the influx of sponsoring money, the projector’s teeth are still as sharp as ever.

Lisa Williams and Virginie Sélavy

REVIEW OF THE YEAR: 2007

La Antena

The Electric Sheep team look back at the heroes and villains of 2007.

VIRGINIE Sí‰LAVY:

THE GOOD

Exiled
Johnnie To’s most accomplished film to date combines punchy direction with a well-knit, pleasingly convoluted script while the unusual Macau setting, with its colonial buildings and desert landscapes, is utilised to magnificent effect. With Exiled, To is openly emulating Sergio Leone, and this is a great riff on the Italian master’s trademark mix of playfulness, melancholy and spectacular violence.

Ten Canoes
A wonderful folk tale set in an Aboriginal community, Ten Canoes is about the eternal story of mankind – a repetitive tale of love, lust, jealousy, conflict, food, farts, shit and death. Although it presents itself as a morality tale, the film is anything but, the ending being a joyfully inconclusive illustration of the messiness of human life. One of the most thoroughly enjoyable films of the year.

Inland Empire
There is an experimental, uncompromising feel to this three-hour dream tale as well as a structural and thematic ambition that make it one of David Lynch’s best films in a long time. Lynch uses the set-up of the film-within-the film not as an empty self-reflexive device but as a way of exploring the idea of different levels of reality. The film is very much concerned with time, a fluid, non-linear kind of time, with doors, windows and TV screens providing the gateways from one dimension to another. This is no virtuoso demonstration of temporal complexity, however, and the echoing fragments of time are all connected to an eternally repeating tragic love story.

Far North
With Michelle Yeoh magnificent in the central role, Asif Kapadia’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature The Warrior is another stunning epic fairy tale set amid breathtaking landscapes. Against the savage beauty of the Arctic Circle, in an environment where life is a constant, violent fight for survival, an increasingly tense triangle develops between two women and the escaped soldier they have rescued. At a time when there is so much angsty questioning about the state of British filmmaking, it is baffling that such a beautifully accomplished film should still be awaiting distribution.

Frozen
A graceful, elegant film, both visually and thematically, Frozen is a slow-paced evocation of a rebellious young girl’s life with her father and brother in the remote Himalayan mountains. When one day the Army disrupts the desolate peace of their surroundings and erects a camp opposite their house in order to fight some vague terrorist enemy, it is the first sign that the family will be forced to change their way of life. Elliptical and subtly suggestive, infused with thoughtful spirituality, filled with memorable images, it is a deeply affecting, soulful film.

La Antena
In this magical fairy tale from Argentina a megalomaniac TV boss has stolen the voices of the city’s inhabitants. In a delightfully playful homage to silent film, blonde heroines and intrepid, if slightly bumbling heroes on bizarre flying implements bravely stand up to the fascistic villains. The wonders of early twentieth-century mechanical inventions are mixed with surreal touches to create a cautionary tale about brutally repressive power-hungry media moguls. Enchanting, quaintly charming but also very timely.

THE BAD

The Fountain
Peddling mystical rubbish of the most literal kind, The Fountain has nothing but tiresome special effects to guide us on the path to enlightenment. Sadly, this atrocious new-age mumbo-jumbo comes from the director who gave us the brilliantly inventive Pi in 1998.

TOM HUDDLESTON:

THE GOOD

This Is England
Shane Meadows cements his position as Britain’s finest living filmmaker with this savage, sympathetic, angry, nostalgic, hilarious and heartbreaking study of his own conflicted childhood, in which a poignant study of England’s past becomes a stark warning for our collective future.

I’m Not There
There’s no doubt that it helps to be a Dylanophile when viewing Todd Haynes’ magical, fractured take on the great man’s life and work, riddled as it is with in-jokes, references, and entire plots and sequences inspired not by real life but by Dylan’s lyrics, lies and exaggerations. But as an exploration of the relationship between creator and creations, between truth, fantasy and self-expression, I’m Not There is truly worthy of its subject.

Zodiac
The best journo-procedural since All The President’s Men, this is by far David Fincher’s best film since Se7en (not that there’s been much in the way of competition). Expansive, involving and gorgeously photographed while still managing to be genuinely disturbing, Zodiac is prestige filmmaking in the classic sense.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros
A giddy, gender-bending, bizarrely loveable take on City of God, replete with corrupt cops, shabby small-time crooks and wayward street punks, all in orbit around the titular cross-dressing twelve-year-old, a dayglo whirlwind in high heels and his dead mother’s dresses. Ghetto fabulous, in a very literal sense.

Knocked Up/ Superbad
In a year bereft of a decent studio blockbuster it was left to Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow to save our summer. And they succeeded admirably, with a pair of crass, juvenile, deliriously heart-warming indie-stoner comedies, reuniting the casts of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared and marking a high point for American comedy unseen since Bill Murray was king.

THE UGLY

Death Proof
In a bumper year for badness (300, Exodus and Pirates 3 were all strong contenders) one film effortlessly clawed its way to the top of the dung heap: Death Proof is boring, crass, pretentious, totally wastes Kurt Russell and offers yet another unwanted insight into Quentin’s bizarre, conflicted, adolescent view of women as either whores or heroes, preferably both.

SARAH CRONIN

THE GOOD

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
An edge-of-the-seat psychological thriller, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a riveting film about oppression in Communist-era Romania, told through the eyes of two young women entangled in a backstreet abortion. Excellent performances and brilliant cinematography help make this Palme d’Or-winning film one of the best of 2007.

The Counterfeiters
Stylishly shot and superbly acted, The Counterfeiters is a film set during the Holocaust that manages to be suspenseful, entertaining and provocative, perfectly capturing the agonising decisions that tormented the men in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, who were recruited by the Nazis for the largest-ever counterfeiting operation in history.

THE BAD

I Don’t Want to Live Alone
Tsai Ming-liang’s reputation is based on creating artistic works diametrically opposed to the bland, lowest-common-denominator junk churned out by Hollywood. Unfortunately, his latest film I Don’t Want to Live Alone is a dreary, unspeakably dull film that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions.

LISA WILLIAMS:

THE GOOD

This Is England
Another stylish addition to the country’s canon of social realism. Meadows abandons his hardcore revenge fixation and replaces it with a tenderness delivered through a coming-of-age story. It soars from the highs of sexual awakening to the lows of a racist’s squalid flat and has an excellent ska-soaked soundtrack to boot.

Control
While nothing can get close to explaining the last moments of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis’ troubled life, through its measured characterisation and telegraphic storytelling Control comes close. Corbijn evokes the aesthetics of the period through moody monochrome, but his characters are anything but black and white.

Eagle vs Shark
The last few years has seen a glut of pastel-hued kooky movies such as Little Miss Sunshine and Eagle vs Shark never pretends to be anything different. But the unrelenting geeky arrogance of its male lead juxtaposed with the sheepish sweetness of its female lead makes for a successfully offbeat rom-com with the perfect ratio of emotional moments to funny ones.

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten
This documentary about the life and times of the Clash’s infamous lead singer feels more like an extended television programme than a movie but how else could Julien Temple fit in so many testaments to the musician’s wit and wisdom? Archive footage spliced with interviews with Strummer’s friends and associates cleverly asserts his sound musical and cultural legacy.

Opera Jawa
It is centuries-old and its musicians can play overnight concerts without a break but no one thought of using gamelan on a film soundtrack until Javan film director Nugroho earlier this year. The eerie sounds and patterns unfamiliar to a Western ear accompany this love story to its tragic end while the art installations, lively dance sequences and a good use of colour make this film the most visually spectacular of the year.

THE UGLY

Hairspray
Although John Waters gave it its full blessing, this remake is a poor interpretation of the original. Its theme of racial integration and the idea of accepting oneself no matter one’s size are undeniably healthy for the younger audience, but the un-PC sleaze and flamboyant style and most importantly, the music of the original are shamefully missing.

ALEX FITCH:

THE GOOD

Persepolis
A perfect animated version of the popular graphic novel, which mixes terrific caricature and subtle chiaroscuro shading. A touching coming-of-age story about an Iranian girl who never feels at home in her own country or studying abroad is the best animated film in years and one that’s attractive to older children and adults alike.

Drawing Restraint 9
Matthew Barney’s latest cinematic masterpiece is a memorable epic that confirms his talent not only as an artist but also as a filmmaker. Mixing his usual esoteric but beautiful imagery of sexuality and daily routine Barney brings the ritual and paraphernalia of whaling into sharp relief.

30 Days of Night
Continuing this year’s trend (300, Persepolis) of turning cult graphic novels into films that capture the aesthetic of their original format, 30 Days is the best vampire movie since the original Blade and the best horror film set in the frozen North since John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing.

Zodiac
David Fincher continues to bring the finest thrillers in a generation to cinema screens. Here, he has made an almost flawless melodrama that mixes Robert Downey Jr.’s finest performance to date with a perfect policier of the French tradition that has as many evocative temporal stylings and red herrings as you could possibly hope for.

Brand upon the Brain!
Cynics might accuse Guy Maddin of being a one-trick pony – producing obscure silent movies full of deviant sexuality and exaggerated performances – but no one else does it so well! In his latest, a lurid tale of orphans, mad (naked) scientists and a haunted lighthouse combine to produce another memorable phantasmagoria that could make Lemony Snicket jealous!

THE BAD

Running Stumbled
John Maringouin’s self-indulgent and exploitative verité movie is a mixture of real life and staged performance that brings to the screen a depressing tale of drug addicts in pre-Katrina New Orleans. There’s enough material here for a diverting short film, but at feature length, the director’s stunt seems to be mainly concerned with trying the audience’s patience…

CLAUDIA ANDREI:

THE GOOD

The Lives of Others
The film deservedly scored a foreign language Oscar: It’s 1984 in Communist East Germany, and Big Brother is watching its citizens. More precisely, Stasi top dog Weisler oversees the surveillance of George Dreyman, under suspicion for being the only non-subversive playwright in the land. A bleak tale of how state and secret police control the masses, and of how little has changed.

Two Days in Paris
This DIY affair from Oscar-nominee Delpy (who wrote, produced, directed and starred) is the ultimate antidote to saccharine love stories. Razor-sharp dialogue, oddball characters, twisted humour and political undertones make for a spicy anarchic soufflé.

Joe Strummer – The Future Is Unwritten
Julien Temple is no amateur when it comes to making music documentaries. Combining archive footage with rare interviews and other snippets, the film celebrates the late Clash frontman as a legend whose punk ideology is here to stay. With contributions from the likes of Johnny Depp and Martin Scorsese, this is as cool as it gets!

The Bow
A poetic tale of love and betrayal on the high seas – and not a pirate in sight. An old fisherman and a young girl live on a boat – isolated from the mainland. He boosts his income by acting as a clairvoyant – using the girl and a magic bow as his tools. Magic is pushed off the plank, however, with the arrival of a young stranger…

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Forget the gun-wielding, bank-robbing James gang… for this is more American Gothic than Wild West. In fact, it’s a Shakespearean tragedy that de-mystifies the legend of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and portrays his killer (Casey Affleck) as a psychological wreck. Superb!

THE UGLY

Rabbit Fever
Hailed as the most hilarious Brit comedy of the year, Rabbit Fever tells of sexually frustrated females who find nirvana via the aid of, ahem, the Rabbit vibrator! The humour is as low as an exhausted Duracell battery bunny, and cameos by an all-star cast do nothing to stimulate the G-Spot!

BEN DOOLEY:

THE GOOD

I For India
A truly impressive and emotionally complex film memoir about life for a family of Indian migrants settling in Britain in the 60s and trying both to maintain contact with their faraway relatives – with increasing desperation – and to understand a Britain in the age of Enoch and Maggie, of mass poverty, unemployment and racism. Director Sandhya Suri displays creative intelligence in her use of a Super-8 diary sent back and forth between her doctor father and his family in India in combination with archive TV footage, bringing to the fore a multiplicity of voices that speak of the contradictions inherent in the immigrant condition.

Inland Empire
David Lynch undoubtedly remains the modern master of suspense and horror. While many directors are content with setting us up in a believable world and terrifying us with the monsters that lurk beneath, Lynch is really only ever interested in ripping reality apart to tear into the psyche and the world of cinema itself. Terrific stuff!

Funny Ha Ha
First-time actress Kate Dollenmayer is captivating as Marnie, suffering through the doldrums of post-university loneliness; unemployed, single and floating through pointless parties and dull temporary jobs. Director Andrew Bujalski is clearly indebted to Cassavetes’ emphasis on improvised interactions between actors, but nevertheless offers up a smart and funny script that hones in on a time of life close to his heart with a documentarist’s eye for detail.

SHORT CUTS: ROCK’N’ROLL CINEMA

Rock'n

Photo by Lisa Williams

In an age where big studios dominate filmmaking, short films have become a means to bring experimental and adventurous work to the movie-goer, and no more so than at events like Rock’n’Roll Cinema. The evening of bands and short films, held at 93 Feet East in Brick Lane, is going into its fourth year – quite a grand old age for a monthly event, many of whose contemporaries have vanished without a trace.

‘It was born out of a combination of me being in a band and wanting new places to play, and of knowing different creative people who could come together to help me put on a night. I also found that when I went to the cinema I always wanted to talk about the film afterwards’, explains Dan Cundy, founder of the night. The different creative people include Dan’s girlfriend Wednesday, known as Rollergirl, who skates around singing jingles and selling popcorn, and the DJs, VJs and compí¨res he chooses to pull together the night.

Also with him from day one was the team at Future Shorts, who provide the night with a tailor-made programme of short live action films, music videos and animations. The choice of films is dictated by the nature of the crowd and the set-up at Rock’n’Roll Cinema, according to Pippa Rimmer, director of exhibitions at Future Shorts. ‘I think the films we choose to show here are a little bit quirky’, says Pippa. ‘We choose lots of music videos, show the longer films earlier in the night and try not to use many with subtitles because it isn’t a theatre venue. When we see films in the office we can often tell straightaway which films the crowd here will really like.’

One of the films specially picked for the Brick Lane crowd today is Fitness Video by Japanese director Nagi Noda. A surreal spoof exercise routine led by a young girl with Popeye-style muscles backed by a chorus of bipedal poodles, it is lapped up by the audience. You can tell when the audience likes a film because the laughs are louder and longer than those usually heard in a cinema. The same goes for the gasps, and even the awestruck silences seem more silent. ‘I think people are more relaxed here because they can walk around. It might mean that they’re less absorbed in the films because they’re right next to a bar but you get a better reaction from them as they’re having a laugh with their mates’, says Pippa.

The loudest gasps come during the opening film Spider, an Australian film directed by former stuntman Nash Edgerton. Its slow build-up of tension and triple-shock ending show that with the right story and execution you can move the viewer more in eight minutes than some films manage in two hours. There may be speed-dating and cakes in the next room, a barbecue and bottle bar outside, and bands and hula-hooping to come, but while this film is playing all eyes are fully forward.

Lisa Williams

Rock’n’Roll Cinema takes place every first Sunday of the month at 93 Feet East, London. For more details visit the website.

INTERVIEW WITH GARIN NUGROHO

Opera Jawa

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 September 2007

Distributor Yume Pictures

Director: Garin Nugroho

Based on:‘The Abduction of Sinta’ (from the Ramayana)

Cast: Artika Sari Devi, Eko Supriyanto, Martinus Miroto

Java 2006

120 minutes

Javan director Garin Nugroho is a slight man dressed in pale jeans, a black T-shirt and beige anorak. As he introduces his latest work, Opera Jawa, to the Barbican audience, it is impossible to predict how much colour, music and movement is about to appear on screen. Opera Jawa is a retelling of a story from the ancient Hindu text – the Ramayana. It sings the story of a love triangle in modern Java which leads to domestic turmoil, mass political unrest, and death. Nugroho, who is known for his socially-conscious, indigenous films, tells the audience that in the making of the film 60 songs were composed, 70 dance routines were choreographed and seven art installations were created.

Opera Jawa was commissioned last year by the New Crowned Hope festival – funded by the city of Vienna to commemorate Mozart’s 250th birthday – and fittingly, the film takes the form of a requiem. Perhaps predictably, Peter Sellars – the man who staged a series of Mozart’s works re-imagined for New York settings – was chosen to curate the New Crowned Hope project. At the Barbican screening Sellars introduces Opera Jawa as ‘the first film of the 21st century’. As he discusses the making of the film with its director, it becomes clear that these two men from different backgrounds share the same vision – combining old works with challenging new art forms.

Lisa Williams: Opera Jawa is a requiem for all those who have died in natural and man-made disasters in Indonesia. Can you tell me a bit more about this?

Garin Nugroho: The film is about disaster and violence. The three main characters are symbolic in the same way as classical Javan puppets are. Siti means ‘land’. She represents what has happened to the people as a result of natural disaster, conflict and the fight for holy land. She goes through three months of conflict when people fight for her body for these different reasons. She says in the film, ‘I’m not a holy land, I’m a human being’. The character Ludiro represents people who have power in the economy and military and who abuse this power. Setio represents the people who are disempowered and so become violent. That is the way of the world.

LW: Was it important to you to make an intrinsically Javan film?

GN: It was important – in the film there are many popular elements of Javan culture such as the market places, the clothes, the Javan puppets. The movement and the dance are very Javan. But I think the most important thing was the gamelan music. This is the first film accompanied by an entirely gamelan soundtrack. The soundtrack of the film reflects how the medley of art, music and dance can work together to create something incredibly valuable like it does in Java. We live in an oral tradition, and if you come to Java you can see how song, dance and art all live together.

LW: The film is like a showcase of local talent – the artists, musicians, singers and dancers. You made an effort to get the artistic community involved but you also mentioned this move backfired – with artists producing a glut of work for you to include. Where did you draw the line?

GN: Art is about being given room for productivity and the person who gives this room becomes like a hero. I gave artists room to be creative but I had the final say. It is like people are giving me small glasses of sake. Each time I drink one I become a hero to the person who gave it to me. But it’s up to me to control myself. Everyone wants to give me more and more sake, but I must control myself or else I become drunk.

LW: You said the film was conceived five years ago – how does the final product match up to the original vision?

GN: It’s better than how I thought it would be because so many artists gave me their ideas and creativity. So many people collaborated with me and each one brought their own ideas and their own spirit. They trusted me to deliver something, and it was wonderful to be given that space and it was the perfect time to make the film.

LW: To what extent did the Indonesian reformation (following the 1998 revolution which saw the end to 30 years of authoritarian rule) affect your work?

GN: We are still living the post-1998 moment. This is our euphoric moment, the moment for expression and for politics. For example, for the first time many different Indonesian cultures can come together – the Sundanese, the Javanese, the Papuans. Now these different communities can hold festivals and make films. After the 1998 revolution more than 1000 short films were made in a year. It was like a sudden euphoria. People could use film as a way to express what they had been feeling for years. I’ve been using films firstly to express our personalities, and secondly to express what I felt about what had happened in Indonesia. I make films because I want to start a dialogue about something.

LW: What would you be doing if you weren’t making films?

GN: If I hadn’t become a filmmaker I would be a politician. I was the chosen candidate in a number of elections in the past. I’ve also worked for non-governmental organisations because I’m interested in politics. But filmmaking is political itself. Film both affects and reflects the way we are thinking and reacting.

LW: What was it like working with Peter Sellars?

GN: Sellars knows about Java. When I read his autobiography I saw we had similar feelings about things. We have similar aims and I think this is important because we don’t need to discuss everything and break it down into logical details. When I went to him with the idea, he didn’t hesitate, he just said, ‘do it!’

LW: When he has recreated operas and stage plays, Sellars has been criticised before for straying too much from the original story. Opera Jawa was very loosely based on ‘The Abduction of Sinta’ from Hindu text the Ramayana – was this deliberate?

GN: Artistic interpretation has always been important. Reinterpretation is the beginning; it is what I call the support of creativity. I think what Peter did with Mozart was fantastic because he reinterpreted it. Through Opera Jawa people will learn about the Ramayana. Through reinterpretations people hear about the originals.

LW: What is your last word on Opera Jawa?

GN: The important thing about the film is that some of it is chaotic. If there is chaos, people will develop their own system, their own way of understanding what is going on around them. We tell the story of living in a chaotic place where the future is unpredictable. In Asia there is so much unpredictability, but that is the beauty of it.

John Waters: Hairhopping to Hollywood

Hairspray

Format: Cinema

Release date:

Distributor

Director: John Waters

Cast: Divine, Ricki Lake, Deborah Harry

USA 1987

88 minutes

The Hairspray remake is released on 20 July 2007.

Distributor Entertainment

Director: Adam Shankman

Cast: John Travolta, Michele Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah

USA 2007

He is known as the Pope of Trash, peddling movies which have shocked audiences and angered the censors since the 70s. But nothing John Waters ever committed to celluloid is as shocking as his decision to allow Cheaper by the Dozen 2 director Adam Shankman, to remake his cheerful hit Hairspray.

Waters made his name with films such as Mondo Trash, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, which ooze trashiness in both style and content. The sacred 180° rule of filming is often broken, heads are cut out of the picture, and shots of anal flexing, bestiality and diseased, violating penises are held for that little bit too long. Those films were made with a total dearth of means, Waters borrowing money from his father and roping in his friends and friends’ friends to act, paint sets and primp hair.

By the time the cameras were rolling for Hairspray, however, Waters’ bank balance had grown in inverse correlation with his taste for the disgusting. Boasting a healthy budget and a Hollywood studio, Waters’ 1988 film is a far cry from his early movies. The film is about Tracey Turnblad – an overweight teen from Baltimore who dances her way onto The Corney Collins Show, managing to break down redneck segregation policies of 1960s America as she goes. With a cracking soundtrack, a polished script and the newly discovered charming teenage star Ricki Lake, Waters had himself his first mainstream hit.

Two decades later, the film has been remade with a new soundtrack, an altered script, a new undiscovered leading actress and, playing her mother, a cross-dressing John Travolta in a fat suit. Does anyone find fat suits funny? Certainly Terry Jones’ Mr Creosote character raised a few laughs in The Meaning of Life in 1983, but since then? Eddie Murphy thumped about as an overweight woman in Norbit, seeing the film belly-flop at the box office. It seems that one too many Friends re-runs has extinguished our appetite for prosthetic chins and spare tyres.

Unlike Travolta, Divine, who played Tracey’s mother Edna in Waters’ Hairspray, had no need for fake weight. A naturally hefty man, Divine only needed a stuffed bra to cut a matronesque figure. Indeed, it is his size that defined him as an iconic cinema star. Divine’s ample girth was matched by his skyscraping hair, his killer heels and his raised eyebrows – pencilled so high he had to shave back his hairline to make space. He turns a number of heads when strutting down a busy Baltimore road in Waters’ seminal work Pink Flamingos. These onlookers, as Waters revealed, were no stage-groomed extras, but genuine shoppers walking past the camera, startled to see a 20-stone transvestite made up like Elizabeth Taylor on acid. Divine looked like this on and off set. Having originally set out to subvert the transvestite scene – where Judy Garland impersonators featured heavily – Divine was nurtured by Waters into a fully-fledged actor equally as able to play a caring mother (Hairspray, Polyester) as a dog-shit-eating trashbag (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble).

But casting aside, it is Hairspray‘s newly re-styled soundtrack that commits the biggest crime. Waters’ soundtracks have always evoked the spirit of his films. Divine struts his filthy self to the tune of Little Richard’s ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ in Pink Flamingos, while Female Trouble opens to a lounge tune of the same title. Written by Waters and sung by Divine, it strikes the tragicomic chord that characterises the film. In Hairspray the soundtrack transcends this scene-setting importance. Hairspray being a film about dancing, the music comes from within the story in most scenes – from the dancehall’s stereo or straight from the bands employed to play on The Corney Collins Show. The music perfectly demonstrates the clash between black and white cultures. Well-groomed white teens shake a tail feather to black classics by The Five Du Tones and Barbara Lynn, while their black counterparts do the same thing but hidden away from both the media spotlight and the white neighbourhood. In one scene, a pushy white mother, played by Deborah Harry, urges her teenage daughter to listen to white artists such as Shelley Fabares and Connie Francis rather than the ‘coloured music’ she likes to listen to.

So if anything, it is for its great soundtrack that Hairspray is remembered. The belting numbers twist and shout throughout the film, and have been immortalised by new generations who know and love the film. So why oh why does the Hairspray remake dispose of these tunes? Instead of the original music we have a tailor-made soundtrack that is as anachronistic as it is tuneless. In its jangly Broadway harmonies it emits a rather unsubtle whiff of Disney. In fact, the new songs are so bland they make you want to eat dog shit just to reawaken your senses.

It poses the question which Waters himself asked about movie remakes. Speaking about a proposed US version of Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, he said: ‘Why would you remake a great movie? You should remake the bad ones.’

You said it, John.

Lisa Williams

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews