Mister Lonely

Format: Cinema

Release date: 14 March 2008

Venues: Renoir, Rio Dalston (London) and key cities

Distributor: Tartan Films

Director: Harmony Korine

Writers: Avi Korine and Harmony Korine

Cast: Diego Luna, Samantha Morton, Denis Lavant

USA 2007

112 mins

It has been eight years since Harmony Korine’s last film, the Dogme-inspired Julien Donkey-Boy. In that time, the one-time wunderkind of American experimental cinema has written a couple of books, directed a few music videos and a documentary, suffered one or two nervous breakdowns and struggled to write, finance and shoot this, his third film as a director. But the wait has been worth it: Mister Lonely is a revelation, alive with genuine passion and wonderment, hysterical, tragic and deeply moving.

A brief synopsis can never do the film justice: Diego Luna plays a Michael Jackson impersonator living and working in Paris, consumed by his role and eking out a meagre living through street shows and old folks homes. He meets Samantha Morton’s Marilyn Monroe, who invites him to join a commune of like-minded souls in a remote castle in the Scottish Highlands. But as Michael and Marilyn’s friendship blossoms, trouble arises in the shape of her husband Charlie Chaplin, whose jealousy and erratic behaviour are more reminiscent of that other moustachioed 1930s joker…

Mister Lonely is clearly the work of a man clawing his way out of a long darkness: the film is about acceptance and rebirth, the need to find kinship amid the confusion of modern living. Michael is, as the title suggests, completely cut off, the focus of attention but always for his appearance, his mannerisms, never his true personality, if such a thing even exists. But in this community of his peers – which include Madonna, James Dean, Little Red Riding Hood and the extraordinary double act of James Fox as the Pope and Anita Pallenberg as the Queen – he finally finds somewhere he can call home.

The comic possibilities inherent in the set-up are explored to full effect, as Sammy Davis Jr. throws shapes on the parapets, or Abraham Lincoln drives a mini-tractor through the sheep paddock, screaming obscenities at the Three Stooges. But there’s so much more to Korine’s script than mere kitsch: these are rounded, fascinating characters, and each gets their moment to shine. Every one of the actors seems completely absorbed in their role – during shooting Korine and his cast lived together at the location, and you can feel the camaraderie.

What’s initially perplexing about the film is a seemingly unconnected second narrative which occasionally interrupts the main story: in Panama, Werner Herzog’s priest is flying relief missions when a nun accidentally falls from the plane. But as each tale unfolds the parallels become, if not clear, then understandable – both stories are about isolated characters on the verge of wondrous discoveries, both deal in matters of faith and self-worth, and if the links between them aren’t entirely justifiable, each is so rewarding in its own right that to complain would seem churlish.

Perhaps the only sour note the film strikes is in the way each narrative strand concludes, for here Korine the wide-eyed innocent is replaced by the familiar disillusioned art-cynic, and although the effect is undeniably powerful one wonders if a little faith wouldn’t have benefited the director as much as his characters. But this is a minor gripe – overall, Mister Lonely is something of a masterpiece, rich with emotion and character depth, and consistently surprising in all the right ways.

Tom Huddleston


Diary of the Dead

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 March 2008

Venues: Vue West End and nationwide

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: George A. Romero

Writer: George A. Romero

Cast: Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts, Amy Lalonde

USA 2007

94 mins

George A. Romero has been synonymous with the horror genre since the ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead (1968), his low-budget, independently made masterpiece which introduced a new, relentless strain of zombie and whipped up a storm for its explicit onscreen violence and wry observations of American society. The smashing sequel Dawn of the Dead, with its ruminations on consumerism, further proved Romero to be an astute and innovative director; while the apocalyptic Day of the Dead was a rewarding finale to the trilogy, ensuring his status as the undisputed king of the zombie film.

Romero returned to the genre in 2005 with Land of the Dead, a schlocky B-movie gore fest in which cerebrally evolved zombies join forces and dine on the brains of their capitalist fat cat oppressors. Now the director brings his unique brand of the undead back to the screen with Diary of the Dead. Despite being firmly set in the twenty-first century, the era of MySpace, YouTube, media saturation and 24-hour surveillance society, Diary is something of a return to Romero’s roots: independently funded and stripped back to basics, the film attempts to recreate the atmosphere of terror and anxiety that made Night of the Living Dead so alarming.

Diary opens as a group of film students, shooting a horror movie in the woods, receive disturbing news reports that the dead are coming back to life and feasting on the flesh of the living. As they struggle to make it home in a rusting Winnebago, cameraman Jason obsessively records the details of their journey, documenting each horrific and deadly encounter along the way, piecing together a candid portrait of chaos and bloodshed. This recording is the film we see, narrated by his girlfriend Debra, who offers a chilling indictment of a world in the grip of its own undoing.

This first person, shaky-cam style gives Diary a realistic edge of tense urgency, and lends itself to some darkly comic moments. Yet it also feels somewhat derivative, particularly since the technique became commonplace in the wake of The Blair Witch Project. It is through Debra’s narration that Romero comments on the omnipotence of mass media and the way it dictates our lives, but this message becomes trite and confusing in its constant reiteration, undermining the potential of the image to evoke and suggest, which in part is what made his original trilogy so compelling. However, the film is not without some inimitable Romero characteristics: the amiable Amish chap whose preferred method of zombie management is dynamite; the tough black rebel group who politicise their fight for survival; and I don’t recall ever having witnessed a zombie dispatched by a bottle of Hydrochloric acid.

After forty years Romero’s incisive wit and inventiveness are still intact, making Diary of the Dead an enjoyable and often gripping film and a small beacon of hope in a genre that’s becoming increasingly dominated by turgid remakes and tedious ‘torture-porn’ sequels. However, it lacks the raw energy, insight and rebelliousness of his earlier films, and as such is not quite the return to form that a hungry horror fan might crave. It’s unlikely Romero will be throwing in his crown quite yet; let’s just hope he gives it a good polish before he does.

Lindsay Tudor


Water Lilies

Format: Cinema

Release date: 14 March 2008

Venues: Curzon Soho and key cities

Distributor: Slingshot Studio

Director: Céline Sciamma

Writer: Céline Sciamma

Original title: Naissance des pieuvres

Cast: Pauline Acquart, Adí­Â¨le Haenel, Louise Blachí­Â¨re

France 2007

85 mins

Twenty years after Simone de Beauvoir upset the general consensus with her revolutionary thesis that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’, she was forced to recognise that the biological differences between the sexes undermined her theory. What remains true though, is that culture shapes our perception of femininity, a perception that constantly fluctuates between idealisation and demonisation. Both extremes are represented in Céline Sciamma’s compelling Water Lilies, a smart and refreshing cinematic study of nascent womanhood that throws us (and this doesn’t necessarily exclude male audiences) right back into the purgatory of teenage love and sexual confusion.

With little dialogue it is an intense film that, one feels, deeply reflects the director’s personal experience. At only 27 Sciamma has produced a debut feature of emotional strength and beauty, within which psychological insight and social commentary flow easily and implicitly. From the film’s opening scene, which sees young heroine Marie observing the girls of the regional synchronized swimming team frantically paddling underwater in an effort to keep their smiling heads and graceful torsos afloat, Sciamma demonstrates a keen eye for a visual metaphor.

The film charts a few weeks in Marie’s summer of first love. With her big wide eyes and grave gaze, she is quite cute but almost creepily introverted, preferring to observe people to talking to them. Her best – and only – friend Anne (Louise Blachí­Â¨re) is Marie’s opposite, girlish and fun-loving, if occasionally uneasy about her curvy body. While Anne has a huge crush on male swimmer Franí§ois, Marie (Pauline Acquart) is gradually consumed by her desire for the beautiful Floriane (Adí­Â¨le Haenel), captain of the swimming team and the most admired girl in school. As the precarious, uneasy relationship between the two girls develops, the palpable emotional and sexual tension reaches its climax. In a scene of great sensibility and intimacy, Marie gives Floriane her first sexual experience; while Franí§ois, disappointed by Floriane’s lack of response to his advances, wilfully ‘does it’ with Anne.

Although the story of troubled teenage girls trapped in the turmoil of young love is overly familiar, Water Lilies has a unique atmosphere, mainly due to Sciamma’s use of the setting. Beautifully photographed and perfectly served by its emphatic electronic soundtrack, the film captures the sheer awfulness of growing up in a suburban hinterland without having to show more than the swimming pool, a few houses and Marie’s overgrown backyard. With a minimal cast, from which adults are carefully excluded, the film is built around soft close-ups of faces and stunning underwater shots of the swimming team. Its essence is vividly fleshed out through the sparse conversations and visceral, heartbreakingly honest performances of the young actors who are all wonderfully natural.

With obvious sympathy for the three, very different girls portrayed, Sciamma’s concern is to track their painful but determined quest for self-realisation. In the end, nothing is resolved, but everything has changed, and at that very moment being a teenage girl in a teenage world feels oddly right.

Pamela Jahn


The Orphanage

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 March 2008

Venues: Coronet Notting Hill, London and nationwide

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona

Writer: Sergio G. Sí¡nchez

Original title: El Orfanato

Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Prí­Â­ncep

Mexico/Spain 2007

100 mins

Produced by Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage is the debut feature of young Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona. A ghost story set in a Spanish orphanage, it has much in common with its mentor’s masterful The Devil’s Backbone, not least in its thoughtful use of the horror genre to explore the troubled mindset of a character confronted with loss and death.

The film opens on an idyllic scene from the past as a group of children play in the garden outside the orphanage on a windy spring day. Over two decades later, Laura, now a grown woman, returns with her husband Carlos and son Simí­Â³n with the intention of turning her former abode into a house for special needs children. Soon after their arrival at the orphanage, Laura is visited by a strange old woman, Benigna, who reveals she knows confidential details about her family. When Simí­Â³n disappears after a party at the house, the police immediately suspect Benigna. But six months later the search for Simí­Â³n has yielded no result and strains start to appear in the couple. While Carlos wants to move on, Laura is prepared to try anything, including paranormal experiments involving a medium, to find some answers.

While the plot is at times clumsy and unconvincing, the locations are well chosen: the house’s antique, dark wood manages to simultaneously evoke the warm cosiness of the past as well as the disturbing secrets it holds, and the rugged Spanish coast provides suitably gloomy and mysterious caves in which Simí­Â³n meets a strange, invisible friend. With a genuinely creepy atmosphere that really grows on the audience as the story progresses, The Orphanage is a subtle, moving horror film. Just as in The Devil’s Backbone, ghosts are manifestations of a forgotten, tragic event and Bayona paints a deeply affecting portrayal of a grieving woman inexorably and fatefully drawn to the past. In that he is well served by Bélen Rueda’s magnificent performance as Laura. It is all the more surprising, then, that the generally restrained tone of the film should be marred by a couple of rather gory, unnecessarily shocking moments, in particular a grisly scene involving the victim of a road accident with a dislocated jaw. In spite of such faux-pas, however, The Orphanage remains a very worthy addition to the type of soulful horror movies that del Toro himself has helped define.

Virginie Sélavy


The Go Master

Format: Cinema

Release date: 28 March 2008

Venues: ICA

Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang

Writer: Cheng Ah

Original title: Wu Quingyuan

Cast: Chen Chang, Sylvia Chang, Akira Emoto, Takayuki Inoue

China 2006

104 mins

Part of Spotlight Beijing: China in London Film Season
20 March-10 April 2008

Back in 1992, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s bleak and controversial The Blue Kite, which follows the daily lives of an ordinary Beijing family in the times of Mao’s Cultural revolution, fell victim to the hypersensitive Chinese authorities who pulled the plug after seeing the first cut of the film. The raw footage was smuggled out of China and post-production was completed without the director having seen the final cut. In this form, the film found its way into the international festival circuit where it became a major critical and commercial success. Meanwhile, the blacklisted Tian was sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’ and it was feared that he’d lost interest in filmmaking until he made a triumphant return with the excellent Springtime in a Small Town in 2002. Tian Zhuangzhuang’s latest film to date, The Go Master, is now opening at the ICA as the centrepiece of the China in London 2008 film programme, which features a long overdue retrospective of Tian’s small but ground-breaking body of work.

The Go Master, in contrast with his earlier films, which mainly focused on ethnic minorities in China, portrays the legendary master of the ancient board game ‘Go’, Wu Quingyuan, and his struggle to cope with life as a prodigy. The film traverses some forty years of turbulent Chinese-Japanese history, from Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s through the Second World War and into the 1960s, bringing to life the political and social upheavals of the time through the details and circumstances that shape Wu’s extraordinary existence.

Born in China in 1914, Wu moves to Japan at a young age and is soon identified as a naturally talented Go player, establishing his reputation through a long competition against a Japanese master. Tutored by a harsh mentor while also battling tuberculosis as a young man, Wu is not driven to play Go merely by his love of the game but also by a search for inner peace, which also leads him to join a Buddhist sect.

The narrative charts Wu’s turbulent life, going backwards and forwards in time as though one were browsing through his diary, which is sometimes confusing. Audiences expecting the lush imagery that is associated with contemporary Chinese cinema might be disappointed and some might find its extremely slow pace boring. However, the film is a moving, intimate domestic drama, played out with subtle intensity on the characters’ faces. Perhaps Tian’s smartest move is to focus not on the wartime turmoil or on the nature of the chess-like game, but on the immense psychological struggle the master of Go faces every time he enters a new game. Chang Chen as Wu gives an outstanding performance of quiet power and brilliantly conveys the strangeness of being a prodigy. When not confined to the game board, he maintains an almost conspicuously low profile with his pale looks and introverted temper, whereas in competition he shows the intensity of a world champion, with a laser-sharp stare and a completely unshakeable concentration. In the film’s most startling scene, when the game is interrupted by an explosion after the atomic bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima, Wu’s only concern is to resume the game without delay.

Just like his central character, Tian maintains an even mood throughout the film. The characters may not all be well shaped; and the power of the images is undermined by the sometimes confusing sequence of events; but his strategy is one of understatement and it wonderfully complements the carefully elaborated visual style to create a beautifully shot and coherent whole.

While it seems a little odd that the China in London film programme features no films by Chen Kaige or Zhang Yimou, who are usually ranked first among China’s Fifth Generation film directors, the season is an opportunity to screen Tian’s lesser-known films together with other recent Chinese films. One wonders what Tian would have been able to achieve if he had not been banned from filmmaking for a decade; although The Go Master is not his masterpiece, it is an elegant biopic with sufficient psychological complexity to draw audiences deeply into the characters’ lives.

Pamela Jahn

Spotlight Beijing: China in London Film Season runs from March 20 to April 10 at the ICA, London.


The London Nobody Knows

Format: DVD

Release date: 3 March 2008

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Norman Cohen

Writer: Geoffrey S. Fletcher

UK 1967

46 mins

Long before Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd or the London Psychogeographical Association had begun beating the bounds of our capital city, there was Geoffrey Fletcher. An illustrator and columnist for the Daily Telegraph, throughout the 1960s Fletcher documented the sights, sounds and scenes of a London fast vanishing beneath the grey concrete tide of redevelopment.

Music halls, gas lamps, cemeteries, public toilets, vaults and catacombs, the horse and cart – all were preserved for eternity by Fletcher in ink and word as they slowly disappeared from view. His books – The London Nobody Knows (1962), Down Among the Meths Men (1966), London Overlooked (1964) and others – long charity shop staples, are now quite collectible, and this film version of his idiosyncratic city vision was previously only available in samizdat bootleg editions passed round by collectors. Recently adopted by thoughtful popsters St Etienne as an adjunct to their Finisterre project, it finally gets a well-deserved clean-up and reissue on DVD.

A dapper and sardonic James Mason takes on the role of Fletcher, and with lines like ‘all men are equal in the eyes of a lavatory attendant’, it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins, this being a good thing of course. Mason’s crusty charm never fails to enchant, even when he’s doing his best Prince Charles impression, hobnobbing with toothless meths addicts at a Salvation Army Hostel. Our Masonic dérive takes us to the Camden Roundhouse, soon to be at the heart of London’s psychedelic revolution, a bustling Chapel Market, an eel and pie shop, Kensal Green cemetery, the East End and elsehwere.

It’s a mostly sober affair, bordering on grim at times, particularly the sections dealing with those who are, as Mason puts it, ‘down on their luck’ – ‘the brotherhood of the leaky boot’ who gulp down moonshine and meths as they fight and dance in the streets. Brightening the tone are a curious and probably ill-advised slapstick routine centring on an egg-shelling business, and a lively market scene set to a wonderful tape and electronics score that wouldn’t have been out of place on the first White Noise album. But for the most part the film presents an unromantic yet sympathetic portrait. Fletcher’s London is one of hidden gems buried deep within a city of dust, hardship and decay. Gems that were, and still are, being erased from maps, inch by inch, as the years roll on. Having said that, as amazing as it is to see these two-dimensional remnants of London’s past, it’s remarkable quite how much of it is still here, despite another four decades of change. This resilience is perhaps how London retains her dignity and her magic.

The London Nobody Knows is a remarkable time capsule, and a film project that should be institutionalised, perhaps something like Michael Apted’s 7-Up series for television that is updated periodically, reminding us how, as Mason remarks, ‘all these things meant something once upon a time’.

Also on the DVD is the 25-minute Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, a whimsical musical romance set in swinging Hampstead circa 1969. Draped in yellow satin and polyester, a pretty boy cycles around Hampstead Village in search of a model he’s fallen in love with after banging his head on a billboard photo. It’s a fairly unpalatable period piece, but director Douglas Hickox went on to make the immortal Theatre of Blood (1973) with Vincent Price, whose derelict London landscapes come straight from the works of Geoffrey Fletcher. So as we come full circle we can perhaps forgive him this youthful folly.

Mark Pilkington

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

Format: DVD

Release date: 25 February 2008

Part of the Alfred Hitchcock: The British Years box-set

Distributor: Network

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Scenario: Eliot Stannard

Based on: the novel by Marie Belloc-Lowndes

Cast: Ivor Novello, Malcolm Keen, Miss June

UK 1926

Made in 1926, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was Alfred Hitchcock’s third completed feature and the one he considered to be his first real film. In spite of his inexperience, Hitchcock demonstrates a flair for building tension and creating an evocative atmosphere. This early silent establishes some of the idiosyncracies he later became famous for, notably his cameo appearances and his fixation on blonde actresses. It is also Hitchcock’s first take on the theme of the wrongly accused man, which would preoccupy him repeatedly throughout the rest of his career.

Based on the eponymous novel by Marie Belloc-Lowndes, the film is set in a foggy, gloomy London terrorised by The Avenger, a killer loosely modelled on Jack the Ripper. As yet another blonde woman is found murdered, a sinister gentleman takes up lodgings at the house of an elderly couple, Mr and Mrs Bunting. Soon, the lodger’s eccentric ways make him a suspect, and this is exacerbated by his obvious interest in Daisy, the Buntings’ young and pretty blonde daughter. Daisy is also courted by a police detective working on the case, and jealousy further spurs the latter’s suspicions when Daisy appears to reciprocate the lodger’s interest in her.

Like many of Hitchcock’s crime thrillers, this is really a sexual psychodrama. The hunt for the murderer is inseparable from the amorous triangle in which Daisy – a potential victim – is pursued by both the police detective and the suspect. In this way the film suggests that the connection between sex and violence is not simply restricted to the murder case but possibly underlies all male/female relationships. There is a scene in which the detective locks his handcuffs around Daisy’s wrists, telling her he’s hoping to do the same thing to the murderer soon. He means it in a playful manner but Daisy becomes upset and complains that he’s hurting her. Through this incident the film introduces intimations of violence in the courtship, revealing the disquieting side of the detective’s desire to possess Daisy. Although the story ends well – rather unconvincingly – a disturbing reminder of this undercurrent of violence is contained within the last images. As the happy couple stand by the window of their swish apartment, the words ‘To-Night – Golden Curls’ are seen flashing on a building behind them. These very same words appear on title cards at the beginning of the film, in connection with the murders. This small, barely noticeable detail introduces a sense of menace in the conventional happy ending, as if to suggest that men’s vicious impulses towards women lie dormant in any relationship, ready to be awoken at any time.

The Lodger is also worth watching for the sense of excitement that it exudes about the possibilities of the film medium. As the story requires that the killer’s identity should remain mysterious to the end, the tension relies on what is heard rather than on what is seen. This being a silent film, Hitchcock had to find clever ways of expressing sound through images. For some of the early scenes he went as far as constructing a glass floor in order to visually convey the noise of the lodger’s footsteps as he restlessly paces up and down his room. This may be slightly over-zealous, but it is that kind of enthusiasm and inventiveness that make the film so pleasurable to watch. The title cards are also worth mentioning: featuring designs by the Cubist-influenced artist E. McKnight Kauffer, they further enhance the dynamic, modern feel of The Lodger.

Virginie Sélavy


Irma Vep

Format: DVD

Release date: 31 March 2008

Distributor Second Sight

Director: Olivier Assayas

Screenplay: Olivier Assayas

Cast: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard

France 1996

95 minutes

The idea of remaking Louis Feuillade’s legendary serial Les Vampires, with Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung in the role of the catsuited thief Irma Vep, is brilliant. What a shame then that instead of really going for it, director Olivier Assayas decided to play it safe and opted for a film-within-the-film about the impossibility of such a project.

When Cheung, playing herself, arrives from Hong Kong to start shooting, she finds a production in disarray, a constantly bickering crew and a formerly revered director, René Vidal (played by veteran French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud), now losing the plot. When Vidal has a nervous breakdown and the filming of Les Vampires comes to a halt, Cheung is left to her own devices, alone and isolated in Paris.

A bittersweet comedy about the chaotic world of filmmaking, regularly punctuated by jabs at the state of modern French cinema, Irma Vep is at best vaguely entertaining, at worst irritatingly self-absorbed. The film is interspersed with footage from Les Vampires and when Vidal attempts to recreate a scene from the original, completely failing to capture its magic, it only serves to show off Assayas’ own impotence in the face of Feuillade’s creation.

Weighed down by too much reverence for the past, Assayas is incapable of breathing life and soul into his film. Flimsy, insubstantial and bloodless, Irma Vep feels like a wasted opportunity, and you can’t help but feel sorry for the great Maggie Cheung, who does her best to liven up the picture in her modern latex catsuit. The best part of the film comes at the very end, as the crew watch the only section of footage that Vidal has completed. With scratched, flickering images accompanied by strange noises on the soundtrack, it conveys the weirdness of the original and condenses it, removing the narrative to leave only fantasized images. If only Assayas had had the vision and courage to approach the whole film in this way then Irma Vep could really have been something.

Virginie Sélavy