Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Crazies - Cineworld - 28/2/10

A confession before we begin.

I have never seen the original version of "The Crazies". I love George A. Romeros "Dead" films (certainly the first three) but I just haven't ever made the effort to see it.

Now that that's out of the way let's get down to the business at hand.

This film was dreadful.

I can't tell if it was a pointless remake or a faithful remake but what I do know is that as a stand alone piece it was mind numbingly dull.

I once worked beside a chap who was completely boring. He finished every sentence with the phrase "yeaaaah?" regardless of whether he was actually asking a question and seemed totally oblivious to the fact that every time he started to speak people started looking for other, more interesting things to do, like counting the checks on gingham shirts or thinking about the great speeches of Gordon Browns Premiership.

I didn't think I would ever be as bored as I was in his company.

"The Crazies" trumped him. That's no mean feat considering that, unlike my former colleague, this film enjoyed a big budget, lots of special effects, explosions and buckets of fake blood. I cannot remember another horror film that was so laboured and so devoid of shocks. At times I had to check the people around me for vital signs to ensure that they hadn't slipped into comas.

Worse than being boring (not the Pet Shop Boys song...that's brilliant) was the fact that the director, Breck Eisner, insisted on battering the audience around the head with his far from subtle commentary on American foreign policy. No doubt he thought that this was terribly clever and incredibly worthy. It wasn't. It was irritating.

Let me explain; "The Crazies" concerns a small town in Iowa that falls foul to a virus that makes the inhabitants do awful things. The source of this virus is a weapons grade chemical that has entered the towns water supply after a US air force 'plane crash lands in a nearby lake. The military then arrive to wipe out the town and everyone who lives there while a hardy band of survivors, including the sheriff and his pregnant wife, try to make it out. By the end only the sheriff and his wife have made it to the next big city at which point we learn that the military has been tracking them and the whole process must start again.

Now lets take Iraq as an example of American foreign policy...America puts Hussain in place, supports him and then wipes him out before moving on to the next place where a previous "good guy" must be destroyed. That appears to be Eisners view of things. He may be right. He may be wrong. What I do know is that being bludgeoned with his view of things over the course of "The Crazies" left me with an almost uncontrollable desire to find Eisner and do something crazy to him.

Do you see what I did there? That's about as subtle as this film was.


February 2010

This month I challenged myself to see, on average, a new film (at the cinema) every second day. I'm delighted to report that I have succeeded (cue slow hand-clapping from entirely unimpressed readers) and that as well as that I was able to squeeze in several other films on DVD.

The real highlight of February was the Glasgow Film Festival who were kind enough to give me press access to films over the opening weekend. The programme as a whole was diverse and interesting but the films that I saw were, universally, excellent. In addition festival director Alison Gardner was very welcoming and accommodating. I really cannot thank everyone at the festival enough.

March now beckons and I have lots of mainstream films to catch up on as well as the final few films of the Ozu season at the Filmhouse...yes, you can look forward to yet more review of films about Japanese family life!

Keep reading and spread the word.

The Witch Who Came From The Sea - DVD - 28/2/10

Banned during the "video nasty" purge of the 1980s which saw many low budget horror films denied a rating and thus an audience "The Witch Who Came From the Sea" is a cult film that, if released now, would seem tame in comparison with the likes of the torture porn of "Hostel" or the arthouse shocks of "Antichrist" but which must have seemed utterly bizarre and disgusting on its release.

The story concerns Molly who is haunted by visions and memories of her fathers sexual abuse. Now in her adulthood Molly embarks on a murder spree which sees her marry sex and torture to bring suffering and death to her victims. The tagline "Molly really knows how to cut men down to size" is an accurate description of the end that awaits each of the men that Molly murders using, first, her feminine wiles to snare the men and then a razor to finish them.

At first glance this looks like standard horror/exploitation fare but it would be wrong to dismiss this as just an early example of what has now become the excessive torture-porn genre. In truth "The Witch Who Came From the Sea" is a feminist film with Molly exacting revenge on men for their subjugation and abuse of women. It is no accident that she removes the penis from her victims, this emasculation is a deliberate message. Molly is a post-feminist heroine and despite her victimhood she ultimately triumphs over a patriarchal society by ending her own life before she can be arrested. Interestingly each of her victims come from male dominated areas; television and sports which are also areas where women are relegated to supporting roles.

Millie Perkins (Molly) gives a convincing performance as the damaged and dangerous central character and director Matt Climber delivers plenty of shocks and blood alongside the political message of writer Robert Thoms script. What surprised me most about "The Witch..." was that I started to watch expecting a sleazy, exploitative movie because of its reputation as a video "nasty" but what I got was a sexual politics tract; not many films deliver so completely the opposite of what you expect.

Still Walking - Filmhouse - 24/2/10

Written and directed by Hirozaku Koreeda "Still Walking" explores similar territory to that found in so many of Ozus films...most obviously in "Tokyo Story" examining the lives of an ordinary Japanese family over the course of one day. In doing so he has brought a film that is as funny and quirky as it is strikingly familiar and tender. Each of the characters reminds you of people in your own life...possibly even of yourself.

The Yokoyama family gather in order to commemorate the death of the eldest son fifteen years ago. Coming together in the home of the parents (the grumpy, curmudgeon and proud father and the more natural, amusing but acidic mother) the children (the son who has married a widow with a young son and the daughter who has arrived with her two children and car salesman husband) find themselves dealing with the difficult nature of their father, the cutting asides of their mother and the presence of their dead brother.

The interactions between them all, usually accompanied by the presence of food, brings each character to life and the performances of all the actors are fabulous. Had this been billed as a fly-on-the-wall documentary you would have remained convinced after watching so convincing are the performances and the story.

Like so many Ozu films the clash between the values of the elderly parents and their Westernised children is a strong element of this film and Koreeda has clearly been influenced by the master director although his film is brisker and lighter than those of Ozu. What also struck me was the closeness of this film to "Departures" in that both deal with death and the impact of it upon those who are left behind. The Japanese sense of tradition and respect runs deep within much of their cinema and it manages to present a compelling case that the West could learn much from them.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Your Fathers Murderer: A Letter to Zachary - 23/2/10

Showing on British television as part of the "Storyville" season this incredible documentary from director Kurt Kuenne has to be one of the most moving experiences I have enjoyed in a very long time. He crafted a film that while telling a very specific story managed to reach out and speak of something universal while I watched...that love really is stronger than death. I cannot imagine the person who watches this and doesn't find a tear rolling slowly down their cheek and I'm not sure I would want to know that person.

Kuenne tells the story of his friend Andrew Bagby who was shot and murdered by his ex-girlfriend and who then fled to her home in Newfoundland in an attempt to avoid prosecution. Shortly after her return to Canada she announced that she was pregnant with Andrews child and that is the launch pad for Kuennes film as he seeks to send a letter to the unborn child that will document who his father was and what he meant to his friends and family. The story that actually unfolds is something altogether more unbelievable and, at times, shocking.

The film also paints a picture of Andrews parents David and Kate Bagby as they struggle to bring their sons killer to justice while at the same time trying to ensure that they have access to their new grandson. The horror of having to sit in the same room as the woman accused of murdering their son and be pleasant to her in order to have time with their grandson is something that I'm not sure I have the words to describe but the film manages to give us a sense of how difficult their struggle was.

While Andrew starts the film as the hero of the piece it soon becomes obvious that his parents are the real heroes...their patience, love, understanding and perseverance is inspiring and uplifting. They are the kind of people that we would all dearly love to be able to call our friends. At times it seems beyond belief that they could endure so much pain and heartache yet still remain so upright, forthright and committed to what they believe. Their battle for justice brings an awful moment of real human suffering that left me sobbing as I watched.

In a world where "hero" can be attached to the likes of John Terry, Ashley Cole, Jordan, Britney Spears and so many others utterly undeserving of it, it was fabulous to see a film that contained two people truly worthy of the accolade. If you are reading this from within the United Kingdom I implore you to find the time to watch the film here before it disappears. I can promise that you will find something beautiful as you watch, even though at times the ugliness on display is almost too much to look at.


Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Adventureland - DVD - 22/2/10

When "Adventureland" made its UK debut at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June of 2009 there was a fair amount of hype surrounding it and, in fact, it sold out meaning that I didn't manage to see it. When it had its theatrical release in September it seemed to pass me by and I didn't really give it much more thought. That's not normally a good sign for a film. However catching it now after the initial hype had passed by has been, I think, a good thing. I seem to remember much being made of the films connections to Judd Appatow (director Greg Mottola is from the Appatow "stable") and that may have played a part in my decision not to go and see it.

However, in much the same way that the decision to market "Slumdog Millionaire" as a "feel good" movie did that film a disservice, so too was the decision to market this as a sort of 1980's "Superbad". Far from being a vulgar teen "comedy" this was a really charming film which has a real ring of truth to it. None of the characters have the feeling of being young people talking in the way that adults think young people talk but rather they look, sound and behave in the way that young people do. That's a major achievement and one not to be sniffed at.

The plot is classic and simple...boy meets girl, boy and girl smooch a bit, some awkward moments follow and in between a whole range of weird and wonderful (sometimes at the same time) characters do a whole series of weird and wonderful things. All of this happens in the confines of the eponymous "Adventureland" a run down amusement park where the rides are dangerous, the games are fixed and the owner is mad.

Where some films that could, mistakenly, be lumped in with "Adventureland" lack any emotional depth here, at times, there are moments that place a lump in your throat and bring a tear to your eye. It's not easy to make comedy that also has emotional weight and Mottola has done a magnificent job in creating a film that makes you laugh and feel at the same time. Much credit for that has to go to to Jesse Eisenberg (who was also wonderful in "The Squid and the Whale" and "Zombieland") and Kristen Stewart (star of the hideously empty "Twilight" films) who both give really convincing performances as James and Em...the two intelligent, awkward and confused college bound lovers at the heart of the film.

What is perhaps interesting, in retrospect, about "Adventureland" was the fact that it enjoyed its release at the same time as "Fish Tank" (which also had a debut at the EIFF) and both of these films tell the story of awkward, confused teenagers but in wildly different ways...each of them gloriously, fabulously honest. It would make an interesting film showing the awful, ugly truth of life in modern, housing estate Britain in the darkest of ways while the other shows the magical, awkward, myth of teenage love in the most colourful of ways.

This was an unexpected delight and a film I'm really glad that I eventually made my way to.

Monday, 22 February 2010

BAFTAs 2010

Isn't Jonathan Ross the most objectionable, sychophantic, juvenille and irritating human being you have ever seen and, sadly, heard? Really, take a few moments to think of someone who is less deserving of his position in society and you would be hard pressed...which is exactly what should happen to Ross, he should be pressed, very hard by something very heavy.

Apart from the horror of Ross giggling at his own jokes, attempting to buddy up to the assembled A listers and generally behaving like a total git the BAFTA awards managed to bring a little glimmer of hope into my life...they didn't give the best picture award to "Avatar" or best director to James Cameron. Both of these are good things, especially if they are repeated at the Oscars. Fingers crossed boys and girls.

Best film went to "The Hurt Locker" or, as I rather unkindly called it when I saw it at last years EIFF, "Dude, Where's My War". Having seen the film again since then I think I may have been overly critical but whatever my reservations it was a film about something important with well drawn characters and emotional depth, unlike...well, I'm sure you can guess. I was also pleased that director Kathryn Bigelow won for best director...a female director working in a male dominated world and producing a very masculine film; she deserved her award.

Colin Firth picked up the award for best actor and I can't say that I disagreed with that. His turn in "A Single Man" was excellent and, although again, I didn't particularly love the film he was impressive. The same could not be said for the winner of the best actress which went to simpering public school girl Carey Mulligan who played...a simpering public schoolgirl in "An Education". How anyone could take to this wet blanket of an "actress" who makes Kiera Knightly look animated is beyond me. Anyone with a heart and a modicum of understanding of film could see that Katie Jarvis in "Fish Tank" was the outstanding female performer of the year.

The two awards which pleased me the most were Duncan Jones who picked up Outstanding Debut for "Moon" which was one of my favourite films of last year and "Fish Tank" winning for best British film...which it a there.

My one major complaint would be the insistence on ghettoising films by not allowing the years outstanding picture, "A Prophet", to be judged alongside English language films. "A Prophet" in any language was the best film of the was devastatingly beautiful (not easy to achieve when most of the film is shot inside a colourless prison), totally convincing and contained performances that outshone any of those in the English language nominees. However, the fact that it won for best film in a foreign language is some consolation.

Overall the BAFTA awards were given to worthy winners and if they are replicated at the Oscars film fans the world over will be happy enough...especially if you know who for you know what walks away with only a couple of technical awards.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

American: The Bill Hicks Story - Glasgow Film Theatre - 20/2/10 (GFF)



The land of the free and the home of the brave.

The land of opportunity.

All men are created equal.

In the case of the American and the America portrayed in this stunningly original biopic there was precious little opportunity, even less freedom, equality was questionable and the only bravery on display was from him.

Ladies and gentlemen...Bill Hicks.

Stand up comedian, visionary, prophet and the most aggressively honest man on earth?

If you’re reading this in Britain then you probably agree with all of that...if you’re reading this in the USA then you may well be asking; “Who the hell is Bill Hicks and why has anyone made a film about him?” The answer to that lies in the fact that Hicks was the most dazzling, energetic, witty, insightful and devastating performers of his day...and of anyone elses day.

Having waded through hundreds of hours of footage of Hicks (much of it previously unseen), 1500 photographs from family and friends and even more hours of their own footage of interviews with friends and family the directors have produced a film that bares no resemblance to any other biopic you will have seen. Using a fabulously inventive animation technique and mixing it at appropriate points with Hicks performing you are given a truly intimate look at a man who was driven by a desire to reach out to as many people as possible with his ideas. Don’t think for a minute that because he was a comedian that there is anything throw-away about what he has to say.

By shying away from hagiography and sychophancy “American” manages to tell a deeply emotional story and to take a genre in a new mean feat. Hicks was an original, a one off and a warm human being...this films greatest success is in replicating all of those qualities.

A Congregation of Ghosts - Glasgow Film Theatre - 20/2/10 (GFF)

"A Congregation of Ghosts" has received a lot of attention as a result of it being the last major work that Edward Woodward completed before his death late last year. A much loved actor who never really realised his potential, certainly on the big screen, he is probably best remembered for his role as Sergeant Howie in the cult horror "The Wicker Man" and as "The Equalizer"on television. That, however, does him a great disservice as he was a very fine actor (the youngest ever graduate from RADA) and one who deserves to be remembered as a "great".

Fortunately director Mark Collicott gave Woodward a role which will stand as a fitting testament to his talents as the real life Reverend Densham who is the central character here. A minister who arrived in the small Cornish town of Warleggan in the 1930s and who almost immediately managed to upset all of his congregation with his piety which ultimately resulted in his preaching to a church filled with cardboard cut outs for nearly thirty years as the members of the community boycotted his services.

Densham appears to have been a man out of time and out of place. He had spent some years in India where he had developed a deep interest in, and affection for, Ghandi, he was a vegetarian and he was also a genuine eccentric of the sort we no longer see. It is perhaps not surprising that his congregation found it difficult to take to him, this, after all, is a small community in the remote Bodmin Moor area of Cornwall and the idea of a minister in a tall, black, stove pipe hat wearing no socks and espousing the ideals of Ghandi must have seemed very peculiar. Add to that the fact that Densham also painted garish murals on the walls of the Church and daubed biblical place names on the doors of the rectory (which remain there to this day) and you have a man who was never likely to be embraced into the bosom of the locals.

The film itself is a beautifully told and lovingly created mixture of real life and ghost story. Collicott mixes the story of Densham with the later story of a young couple who purchase the rectory many years after his death. The husband, Ellis, is planning on writing a novel but soon becomes obsessed with the former minister and even starts to see him in the grounds of the Church. As he falls deeper under the influence of Densham, through old sermons he finds in the home, his marriage falls apart and he is left, like Densham, alone and isolated in the house.

What really makes this film is the performance of Woodward. It is a brilliant piece of screen acting. He is utterly magnetic and totally convincing as the pious, eccentric and yet lovable Densham. He seems almost to be aware that this may well be his final performance and as a result he delivers, to my mind, his finest performance. It is a fitting legacy to a talent who was loved by many.

For Collicott to have delivered such a beautiful, story driven, film and to have directed such a wonderful performance from Woodward, says much about his abilities as a director and I would hope that we see much more from him in the future.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Con Artist - Glasgow Film Theatre - 20/2/10 (GFF)

Mark Kostabi.

People who know that name will already have a very firmly held opinion of the man and nothing anyone says or that he does is going to change it.


Con Artist.

It's really up to you to decide.

Here Michael Sladek makes an attempt to get past the hyperbole, most of it created by Kostabi himself, and to show us the "real" Mark Kostabi while at the same time trying to extract from Kostabi some sort of explanation of, not just who he is, but what he is. This is no easy task as Kostabi is, quite clearly, unsure of the answer to either question.

Mark Kostabi was a big noise in the art world during the 1980's. His paintings sold for a LOT of money, he was mixing with Warhol and Basquiat, he was the enfant terrible of the art world and he loved being so. This was the man who urged people to take the "L" out of play and the "R" out of free. He was rude, obnoxious and opinionated. He wanted to make money and he didn't make any secret of that fact. Most controversially he created "Kostabi World", his version of Warhols factory, where he employed young artists to both produce his work and also to come up with the ideas...he had removed the artist from the art.

The film itself is as engaging and entertaining as its subject. He is utterly contradictory and so we hear talking heads from various luminaries and friends that paint an utterly contradictory picture of Kostabi. Some hail him as a genius and a warm, loving individual while others decry him as a charlatan and the cruelest of men. While you may not enjoy his work (or even believe it is "his" work) there isn't any doubt that Kostabi is an engaging screen presence and a proper character in a world where fame normally attaches itself to only the most anodyne of people (please stand up Leona Lewis et al). Simply or being who he is he deserves all of his success.

Savage - Glasgow Film Theatre - 20/2/10 (GFF)

It isn't often you see something that shocks you and comforts you at the same time. Director Brendan Muldowney managed to do that with this Irish revenge thriller and in the process blasted "Savage" into my list of favourite films.

Let's deal with the comfort first.

Paul is a photographer who witnesses the horrors of contemporary life all around him. From the steps of a courtroom he manages to catch a photograph of a convicted rapist who bit his victims nose off, he watches two elderly drunks fighting on the street as people pass by without giving it a second glance, he hears the wail of police and ambulance sirens, he is confronted by feral youths and is thoroughly depressed by it all.

That's the comforting part. Comforting because I, like most of you, feel exactly the same way as Paul. The world does seem to be increasingly unpleasant and least it does to me and I share Pauls sense of hopelessness and sadness at it. Misery loves company.

Pauls world is blown apart after he is mugged by two young men. As well as being the victim of a street robbery Paul is battered, cut with a knife and, eventually, castrated by his attackers. It's a brutal piece of cinema, the fact that we don't see the most shocking aspect of the attack doesn't diminish the horror of it...a trick used to maximum effect by Haneke in "Funny Games".

Paul spirals into a deep depression, losing his sense of taste and smell, the onset of tinnitus and a sense of fear and dread that is omnipresent. The performance of lead man Darren Healy is utterly convincing here, he delivers a powerful performance that hints at great things to come from him. As Paul spins further and further out of control Healy takes us with him...we share his fear, his desire for revenge and his longing to be "normal".

Now for the shock.

The final minutes of the film are bloody, brutal and ugly as Paul takes revenge in a most awful manner. It's a scene that will stay with you for a long time and one that drew gasps from many in the audience at the GFT today. What was most shocking was that despite the horrific nature of what occurs you never stop taking Pauls side. He is clearly manic by this stage and has lost all sense of perspective but you understand why he is doing what he is and I didn't condemn him. That is perhaps the most shocking thing of all because believe me, Pauls revenge is not easy viewing and it isn't directed at those who have so wronged him.

"Savage" could sit comfortably alongside Shane Meadows "Dead Mans Shoes" and does share some common ground. What sets it apart from being just another revenge movie is the quality of Healys performance. It isn't easy to deliver a film that can still shock a modern audience but Muldowney has managed it here and I'm glad I was able to see it.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Rookies - Cineworld, Glasgow - 19/2/10 (GFF)

My first film of the 2010 Glasgow Film Festival and what a film it was.

A massive hit in its native Japan "Rookies" tells the story of a renegade teacher and his gang of unruly baseball players as they learn lessons about life out on the diamond. Along the way there are bust ups, injuries, adversities, tears and laughter. Like "Field of Dreams" (another movie with baseball at its heart) "Rookies" reminds us that if you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?

There is little by way of detailed character building fact, there are faceless X-Factor wannabes who receive more background story ("Oh, somebody I knew once fell down the stairs and now they've got a sore knee...that made me realise I have to chase my dreams") than the characters in this film. That doesn't really matter though as they are all instantly recognisable from lots of other sports movies and so it's easy for us to root for them right from the off.

"Rookies", unashamedly, wears its heart on its sleeve and doesn't try to hide the fact that what it's really doing is tugging on our heart strings by serving up a good, old fashioned, underdogs triumphing in the face of incredible odds type story. There's nothing wrong with that in my book...I love that sort of thing.

Based on a long running manga series this isn't cinema that is trying to be clever or ironic, it wasn't knowing or arch, it was just good fun with moments where you had a tear in your eye and others where you wanted to punch the air and shout "ye-es" as another home run was hit.

A great start to the GFF for me and I'm looking forward to the next two days.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Princess and the Frog - Cineworld - 18/2/10

The latest offering from Disney tells the story of an impoverished young black girl, Tiana, who kisses a talking frog because she believes that by doing so he will turn into a prince and reward her by providing the money she needs to realise her dream.

Things don't work out that way and, instead, Tiana is transformed into a frog and then has to help the prince find a princess to...oh, you get the idea! It's Disney...there are lovely songs, talking animals, scary villains and a happy ending; what more do you want?

I'm not a big Disney fan, even as a child it wasn't really my "thing" but I really enjoyed "The Princess and the Frog" and, in particular, I enjoyed watching a hand-drawn animation. It looked absolutely fabulous and reminded you that even in the age of CGI and computer animation nothing can capture the warmth and feeling that you feel from hand-drawn.


Wednesday, 17 February 2010

An Education - Dominion Cinema - 17/2/10

Married slum landlord seduces schoolgirl before robbing her of her virginity without ever telling her that he is married, has a child and has done the same thing to several other pubescent girls some of whom have fallen pregnant by him.

That's really the story of "An Education" which is "based on" an article that journalist Lynn Barber wrote for Granta and which later formed part of her memoir. However, because Barber is a bit posh and went to Oxford the British film industry has decided to sell the story as a romantic coming of age tale featuring a fearless young heroine. If Barber had been brought up on an Essex estate in the 1980's and had never gone to any university, never mind Oxford, then I would be willing to bet that this film would have been given a very different treatment by the critics and would never have been given any Oscar nods.

You want supporting evidence? Where is the best film nomination for "Fish Tank" which also deals with an older, married man seducing a pubescent girl? Why no best actress nod for Katie Jarvis from the same film? What about a BAFTA nomination? Nope, the tale of a young working class girl finding her way in the adult world gets no recognition but "An Education" is swimming in award nominations.

Funny that.

Don't get me wrong, this is a good film with a fine performance from Carey Mulligan as "Jenny" (essentially Lynn Barber) and the supporting cast are all terrific too but it does seem that the "industry" has a real thing for painting "upper class" sexual predators as being rogues and then falling over themselves to praise those films (see "The History Boys" for more evidence) but can't bring themselves to offer the same level of praise for a film that features the same characters but from the working classes.

It's a shame that a film I enjoyed has left me pondering the machinations of the industry instead of ruminating on the film itself.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Suspiria - DVD - 16/2/10

Suzy Bannion arrives at an exclusive dance school in Freiburg from New York. On arrival she finds a hysterical young woman fleeing the school in the middle of a thunder storm. During her time at the school she uncovers the terrible truth of what is really behind a series of gruesome murders.

Dario Argento is the Italian master of horror and "Suspiria" is his masterpiece. Filmed in almost lurid Technicolour he crafts a macabre world where every shadow, every window, every character and every shot comes loaded with suspense, dread and terror.

At times what is going on doesn't make a lot of sense but it is your senses that Argento is interested in, not making sense. Visually this is one of the most incredible films I've seen. While the story may be a load of hokum and the acting be only marginally above B-movie there is no doubt that Argento is a skilled film-maker.

A double killing at the films start is as memorable as the slaying of Janet Leigh in "Psycho" and the film has clearly influenced many horror films that have followed including the likes of "The Shining". At times it seems possible to pause the action and take time to appreciate the beauty of the image on the screen...even if that image is something horrible.

Terrifyingly wonderful.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Fish Tank - DVD - 15/2/10

Andrea Arnold could, on the evidence of her first two features, make a reasonable claim to be the best British director of the past twenty years. With both "Red Road" and "Fish Tank" she has written and directed two films that are original and brilliantly crafted. There are clear similarities between both works that hint at a clear vision and style in the same way that Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Shane Meadows possess.

"Fish Tank" follows Mia (Katie Jarvis in her debut) as she negotiates life on a tough London housing estate without much help, love or support from her mother. Within the opening moments we see Mia involved in a violent confrontation with some other teen girls, shouting obscenities at a friends father and displaying even more aggression in her own home. Things appear to be changing for the better when Mias mother brings home her latest boyfriend, Connor, a charming, handsome young Irishman. He shows Mia the love and attention she craves and in return she allows her hard exterior to crack and we catch a glimpse of who she could be.

As with "Red Road" though there is a dark heart at the centre of this film and the hoped for "happily ever after" never seems likely. Something isn't right, something ugly never seems too far away and every innocent gesture and remark is loaded with another meaning. A good example of this is when Connor carries a drunk Mia upstairs to her bedroom, like a father carrying an infant...he gently removes her shoes and slips off her trousers before covering her with a blanket; all completely innocent but something tells you that this is not a scene of homely love but is, instead, something more sinister.

It's difficult to say much more without "spoiling" but I will say that, as with "Red Road", there is a sex scene that changes everything in the film. We shift from suspicion to confirmation and are plunged headlong into the truth of the situation we have been guiltily observing.

Arnold is a genuine talent. She has crafted two films that are near flawless and here has brought a performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis that shows she can take performers to new heights...something that only the very best directors possess.

"Fish Tank" also shows us something about the world we live in. Where politicians make a lot of noise about the society we live in Arnold has, with both of her films, managed to show us what is really happening behind the soundbites. A director with talent and something to say. An original of the species.

A Single Man - Cineworld - 15/2/10

What is most striking about Tom Fords directorial debut is the fact that despite the poignant and moving subject matter it bares little resemblance to a serious film and, instead, looks like a very lengthy advertisement for some of the clothes he designs. Much like Tony Kaye who made the move from advertisements to motion pictures with "American History X" Ford never quite manages to escape a world where image is everything and where you have little time to convey your message.

"A Single Man" contains lots of slow motion tracking, fancy use of colour, bold visuals, arresting attention to detail and memorable songs for key moments but it does feel like a series of short set pieces soldered together instead of one whole.

There is no doubt that it looks beautiful, the opening shot of a naked male form floating in water looks remarkably like Damien Hirsts shark in formaldrehyde, or that Colin Firth gives a wonderful performance as George Falconer the recently bereaved college professor who is planning his last day on earth but by the end you are left unmoved by anything you have seen. For a film that is dealing with such an emotionally challenging subject to achieve that is no mean feat.

A lot of what we see on screen bares a close resemblance to the Coen Brothers "A Serious Man"; both central characters are professors, both wear Austin Powers glasses, both believe their lives to be futile, both are set in 1960s America...and, sadly, both were disappointing.

At one point George visits his friend Charley (Julianne Moore) and the entire scene plays out like a cut from an Austin Powers movie. In a serious film like this it is cringe inducing instead of amusing and is one of the most hideous pieces of film I've seen in a long time. Had it been in a Wayans Brothers spoof it would have been derided...only this films "serious" credentials stop that from happening.

The appearance and performance of Nicholas Hoult brings reference to another film, this time "Death in Venice" as the beautiful Hoult brings light into the life of George...literally as he is lit in such a way as to make it seem as though everything and everyone else around him is lifeless. It's a cheap and easy trick and it has the effect of making Hoult look like he is appearing in a Duran Duran video. A lot of attention is paid to Hoult but I can't figure out why, on the evidence of this he is simply "pretty" as opposed to pretty talented.

On Fords own website you can view a video entitled "The World of Tom Ford" which gives the impression that such a world would consist of highly stylised images, moody black and white and a sense of smug self-satisfaction. Worse Tom Ford is described as a "brand" and one cannot help but feel that this film is simply a further extension of brand Ford than a genuine artistic endeavor.

An interesting and warm performance from Colin Firth is the only thing that redeems this film from being utterly vacuous.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Tony - DVD - 14/2/10

Peter Ferdinando.

Peter Ferdinando.

Peter Ferdinando.

Peter Ferdinando.

If there is any justice in the world that is a name that you will hear more about in the future.

Playing Tony Benson, a sort of autistic Patrick Bateman, Ferdinando delivers a performance that is utterly convincing and absolutely terrifying. With a CV that so far includes bit parts in various British television dramas and one other film this is a breakthrough performance that is the equal of any of the best actor nominees this year and one that deserves to see Ferdinando become a major star.

Tony lives in Deptford, south London, which is handy because, as it sits on the banks of the Thames, he has a place where he can dispose of the body parts of the people he lures back to his flat, murders and then hacks into pieces.

There is nothing glossy about Tony. Unlike so many of the torture porn films of the past few years where murder is portrayed as entertainment and where the murderers are twisted geniuses with a neat line in torture devices Tony is the sort of unfortunate that you go out of your way to avoid sitting next to on the tube or the bus. He has glasses straight from a "Specsavers" ad and a moustache that wouldn't look out of place on a Graeme Souness tribute act. He is nervous, lonely, sad and, ultimately, psychotic.

There is a sense of fear, dread, discomfort and unease that runs from start to finish in this film. Each of Tonys victims is the sort of person who nobody would miss (smack addicts) or who you would find it difficult to find any sympathy for (a TV licence inspector). Tony on the other hand manages to elicit sympathy from you and while he is far from the "hero" of the film it's difficult to feel any loathing for him.

Drawing at times on films like "Taxi Driver" and, obviously, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" this still manages to be very much its own film and remain original and fresh. Destined for cult status it shows that director/writer Gerard Johnson is one to watch along with his star Ferdinando.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Food Inc. - Filmhouse - 12/2/10

Robert Kenner presents an entertaining and informative documentary which looks at food production in the USA.

Shocking, unsettling and emotional "Food Inc." shows us the reality of how what we eat gets from the farm to the plate. It's not a pleasant journey, in fact it is a journey that involves very little farming as most of us understand it and bares a closer resemblance to the methods employed by factories...low skilled, low paid workers performing the most basic of tasks are behind much of the food we eat but that is the least unappetising fact here.

Much of the food we eat poses a danger to our health in the long and, sometimes, the short term. One harrowing tale of the death of a small child from e-coli following a family holiday and some hamburgers is enough to make even the most fervent carnivore stop and think...if only for a minute.

In much the same way as the tobacco companies used to try to convince us that smoking was good for us so the food corporations are attempting to convince us that everything is fine...the truth is that what we eat may be just as harmful to us as the ciggies are.

A documentary that should be on everyones to see list.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Treeless Mountain - Filmhouse - 10/2/10

When I was a little boy you could buy edible paper from the sweet shop.

It wasn't really paper. You couldn't write a letter on it. It was rice paper I think. It was wafer thin and when you put it in your mouth it just dissolved. It didn't taste of anything but I always wanted a bit more of it.

Kim So Yongs 2008 film "Treeless Mountain" is like that.

When we think about a film we are now conditioned to expect suspense, drama, plot twists, a car chase maybe, a sudden, unexpected burst of violence and other "things" to fill our 90 minutes.

Here though there is only the slightest of premises; a young mother estranged from her husband takes her two daughters Bin and Jin to stay with her sister-in-law while she seeks to find her husband.

The aunt isn't a wicked woman who abuses the girls. She's inattentive and a touch cold but she isn't abusive.

The mother isn't neglectful or selfish, she's not a drug addict...she's just a woman struggling to cope on her own.

The girls aren't unpleasant, they don't have filthy mouths, they don't want for anything much other than someone to show them a bit of love and affection.

There isn't anything sinister lurking in the shadows.

There are no car chases.

As the girls catch grasshoppers, cook them and sell them for pennies you are reminded of the innocent endeavours of your own childhood. I used to sell conkers in the playground. When they realise that their mother isn't going to come back you are transported to those moments when you have lost someone who meant so much to you.

From a rice paper thin idea Yong delivers a film that makes you want more and more.

What really makes "Treeless Mountain" are the performances of Hee-yeon Kim and Song-hee Kim as the two young sisters. Neither is older than 9 years old but they give utterly unaffected performances and are totally convincing as two sisters dealing with their world changing rapidly around them.

The film ends with the sisters living on their grandparents farm where, in the most austere of environments, they find peace, happiness and the love they have been desperate for. Free from what we think young people "need" in the modern world the girls sing songs, work alongside their grandmother and learn new skills. Freed from the materialism of the world they have left behind they look, for the first time, to be truly happy.

A delicate and rewarding film.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A Matter of Life and Death - 1946

Oscar Wilde proclaimed that a patriot is someone who loves his own country while a nationalist is someone who hates everyone elses.

In Powell and Pressburgers "A Matter of Life and Death" there can be no doubt as to which they are. This is a very British film. It attempts, successfully, to show everything that is good about the notion of "being" British. Most of those things are romantic ideals, based more in fiction than fact but attractive nonetheless.

David Niven plays Peter Carter a bomber pilot making his way home after a mission in his badly damaged aircraft. With his engines losing power, his crew bailed out or dead, no parachutes left and no hope of survival he makes radio contact with June, a beautiful young American radio operator based in England, and tells her that his only option is to crash the craft into the sea in order to avoid crashing and injuring innocents. He gives a few rousing and bullish last words and then...silence. June assumes that this brave young man is dead and we have no reason to believe anything different.

When next we see Peter he is washed up on the shore. He trudges slowly over wet sand and stumbles upon a naked youth playing the pan pipes (a pastoral notion of Albion) and asks him where he should go to check in...Peter clearly believes he has died and gone to Heaven. This idea that Britain, even at the height of war, could pass for Celestial glory may seem at odds to those of us living in "broken Britain" but at the close of the war it would have been an uplifting and inspirational idea.

Of course Peter is not dead, he is alive and well, but how?

The answer lies in Heaven where we are next transported and discover that the angel sent to bring Peter through the pearly gates has missed him in a real pea souper of a fog and thus enabled him to cheat death. The angel is a French aristocrat and this image of a Brit cheating death by evading it in the form of a Frenchman would also have appealed strongly to a post-war does to me even now.

What follows is a remarkable film as Peter splits his time between the "real" world, where he has fallen madly in love with June, and the spirit world where he must eventually stand before a Celestial court to plead his case to remain amongst the living.

Powell and Pressburger have a good case for being hailed as the finest film makers ever to work in Britain and, for me, "A Matter of Life and Death" is the greatest of their films and the greatest British film ever made. It is, as with so many of their films, visually stunning with scenes shot in glorious colour and startling black and white to show the difference between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The ability of Powell and Pressburger to push the boundaries in an era when the sort of technology that film-makers now take for granted was, literally, fantasy is another testament to their genius.

This is a film that is moral without ever being condescending or preachy. It celebrates a set of values and ideals that could be embraced by people everywhere...the fact that Peter is an Englishman is not really significant; it is what he embodies and represents that is significant. He is honest, gentle, brave, fair and dignified and in a world where those qualities are increasingly difficult to find Peter offers an inspiration to those of us who would like to see them return.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Early Spring - Filmhouse - 7/2/10

Another Ozu film?

Yes, another one.
Ozu himself said of "Early Spring"; "Although I hadn't made a white-collar story for a long time, I wanted to show the life of a man with such a job - his happiness over graduation and finally becoming a member of society, his hopes for the future gradually dissolving, his realizing that, even though he has worked for years, he has accomplished nothing." This sense of sadness and dissatisfaction can be found in many of the films of Ozu and as a result it can seem, especially when viewed very close together, that one is seeing the same story again.

Here though Ozu does offer something different to the other films by way of marital infidelity. The central protagonist indulges in a brief affair with the office flirt. That, of course, allows Ozu to focus his eye on how that affects the husband and wife, the lover and those associated with all of them.

It is as beautiful to look at and as honest and delicate as each of the other pieces in this season.

Precious - Cineworld - 5/2/10

6 Oscar nominations.

Cameos from Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz.

Production credit for Oprah Winfrey.

It would be easy to allow yourself to get caught up in the hype surrounding "Precious" in much the same way that people did with something like, oh lets just say, "Titanic" and confuse "buzz" with quality.

In the case of this film though there is something more substantial at play than a CGI boat and Kate Winslets breasts. Here we have moving and disturbing drama that will leave you feeling shocked, uncomfortable and more than a little worried.

"Precious" is a teenage girl living in Harlem in 1987 with her abusive mother (played by Mo'Nique more of whom later). Struggling with the basics like reading and writing Precious spends most of her time at school daydreaming of a more glamorous life. She has a baby with Downs Syndrome who she, without any vindictiveness, calls "Mongol". She is also pregnant again. The father of both children is her own father a fact that her mother feels is a source of great shame...for Precious who she declares has stolen her man from her. Into this world of pain, abuse, heartache and misery comes hope in the form of an alternative education programme and the bizarrely named teacher "Blue" who offers Precious the chance of a better life.

That's all there is by way of's an old story and one we've seen on the big screen before in various forms but here the tale is told with a realism and emotion that, at times, leaves you feeling uneasy, awkward, ashamed and frightened. Mo'Nique (better known in the US as a comedienne) delivers several of the moments that contribute to those feelings; her performance as the violent, lazy, bitter and twisted mother is chilling; at one point she delivers a tirade of abuse and threats towards Precious that is utterly vile before delivering a beating to her.

Perhaps the most horrific moment comes when Precious returns to visit her mother after the birth of her second child. When her mother asks to hold the baby everyone in the cinema took in an audible breath and held it as we waited for something terrible to happen. What happened next was terrible and, for me, was the most devastating moment in the film.

There are moments of colour and joy in "Precious" but they are primarily to be found in the fantasies that Precious escapes to when life is becoming too much to bare. Filled with colour these are the only times that Precious really appears happy and that in itself is a source of discomfort for the viewer.

Gabourey Sidibe plays Precious and gives a performance that is worth the Oscar nomination and when one takes a look at the other nominees it seems, to me, that her performance is the most worthy of the golden statue...but I think that Sandra Bullock is the favourite for her performance in "The Blind Side" which hasn't been released here in the UK so I can't really make any comment. Sidibe is completely believable, I never doubted for a second that she was "Precious" or that what I was seeing on screen was anything other than real and that, surely, is the mark of a great performance.

Don't believe the hype. Go and see this for yourself and create your own hype. It won't make you feel happy but it will make you feel.

Friday, 5 February 2010

The Firm - DVD - 5/2/10

Nick Love isn't a particularly gifted film-maker.

I appreciate that's a bit rich coming from someone who has never made a film.

It's like the eunuch in the harem passing comment on the technique of the master.

Still, we're all entitled to an opinion.

This is a tecnicolour reboot of Alan Clarkes 1988 film of the same name. A story of football hooligans...casuals and the seemingly mindless violence that they revel in.

Clarkes film was dark and in Gary Oldman had an actor who possessed a genuine sense of madness which was crucial to believing the mayhem he created as leader of a "firm" of football casuals in London.

Loves film is more like an overlong "I Love the 1980's" show...casting knowing and ironic nods in the direction of the music, the make-up and the hair of the decade but never really convincing in the only area that matters to this story; the violence.

From the Teddy Boys to the Mods to the Skinheads British working class teenage males have generated subcultures that revel in clothes, music and violence to bring meaning to empty and hopeless lives. For the Teddy Boys it was the despair of the post-war years, for the Mods it was a rebellion against the class system and the joy of the new wealth the 1960s brought, for the Skinheads it was open warfare against the peace and love of the late 1960s that hadn't succeeded in changing anything and the awful realisation that once again hope had been replaced with hopelessness.

Where the casuals differed was in the fact that many of them were reaping the rewards of Thatchers Britain...home-owners, well paid jobs, cars; they had it all where many of there predecessors had had nothing. Despite that something was missing, there was a hole in their lives and they chose to fill it with violence on a grand scale.

Love never really probes the big question of why here, instead choosing to focus on how well dressed the casuals were and attempting, like so many others, to glamourise the violence of the terraces before tagging on a morality lesson at the end that you know he didn't want to put in and that he doesn't believe.

"The Firm" looks good, but just like the casuals its all surface and no feeling.

The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice - Filmhouse - 5/2/10

I have an anecdote that I tell whenever I'm around people who are new enough not to have heard it but so new that they would be horrified by it. It concerns food poisoning and a transatlantic flight. I don't know you well enough to say any more than that.

The thing is that I tell this anecdote in exactly the same way every time I tell's more of a rehearsed audition piece than a piece of spontaneous reminiscing, nothing ever changes and for the people who have heard the tale before (often more than once) it raises a wry smile and polite laughter at the right moments but it doesn't surprise them in any way.

The ability to tell the same story and make it unique, surprising and delightful in equal measure is impossible...unless you are Ozu of course because here, again, we have his ruminations and observations on the same themes; marriage, love, loyalty and the changing nature of Japanese society. Again though he brings something new to the story with strong female characters making life difficult, awkward and uncomfortable for the males...highlighting the changing face of Japan in the post-war years and the increasing influence of Western culture.

This is the sixth film from Ozu that I have seen since the start of this year and as each one has passed I have fallen deeper and deeper in love with his work and with the world he presents. I can only hope that at least one person reading this manages to watch something by Ozu on the back of my ramblings and discovers the same joy and wonder I have from them.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

(500) Days of Summer - 2009

Indier than thou.

This film from 2009 wears its indie credentials on its sleeve and is all the more glorious as a result.

With a soundtrack that includes not one but two bona fide Smiths classics ("Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" and "There is a Light That Never Goes Out") and showings from the Pixies, Temper Trap, Regina Spektor, Doves and, gulp, Hall and Oates this is every indie kids dream.

As importantly it features the sort of boy and girl that indie kids are all desperate to be with...awkward, smart and witty Joseph Gordon Levitt and quirky, damaged and knowing Zooey Deschanel are perfectly cast. I always wanted to be just like him and to have a girlfriend just like her. Even now at this advanced stage in life I have a yearning to meet a girl in a lift who recognises the tinny sound of The Smiths coming from my headphones.

Sad isn't it?

This is NOT a love story.

This is the greatest story about love ever shown on the screen.

This is NOT a story of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl live happily ever after.

THANKFULLY this is not a story of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl live happily ever after.

(500) Days of Summer is about those people who waft into our lives on a breeze and then leave on the roaring wings of a hurricane (do hurricanes have wings?) tearing out our hearts, smashing everything we thought was indestructible and leaving us panting, sobbing, gasping, yearning, hoping and hopeless on a tear soaked mattress holding tightly to the pillow; the one that they dreamt on.

(500) Days of Summer is about finding someone who completes us and not caring about how corny that sounds.

(500) Days of Summer is about finding the ONE.

(500) Days of Summer is about realising that there isn't one...or if there is then it probably wasn't that one after all.

Levitt and Deschanel should both have received Oscar nods as should director Marc Webb because they delivered honest, moving, funny and dazzling performances in the only film that I went to see at the cinema six times last year.

Yeah, you heard me...six times.

I don't care what you think about that. At least I was smart enough not to go back and see "Avatar" again.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Criminals - Filmhouse - 3/2/10

Here in Britain there is much debate over whether our society is broken or not.

Political parties present argument and counter-argument about what is good, what is bad and what is ugly in our communities. It's difficult to properly assess exactly what, if anything, has gone wrong. Maybe we have always had violent, brutal and vindictive people in our communities and maybe there are as many, if not more, "good" people doing good things but they don't shift copy or attract viewers in the same numbers.

In "Criminals" director Joseph Strick decides to let the criminals speak for themselves so we hear first hand testimony from prostitutes, burglars, rapists, child abusers and murderers. They tell their tales direct to the camera or, in some instances, to police officers or attorneys in interview rooms. We even see one murderer retrace his footsteps and actions at the scene of a crime under the supervision of investigators. In addition we see footage of Church elders stealing from collection bowls, young men filming themselves battering and then urinating on innocent passers-by and people holding up drugstores.

There is also a haunting narration written by Pullitzer Prize winning poet C.K Williams which poses questions about the world that has created these crimes and those who have perpetrated them. It is a powerful piece of work and one which sits perfectly with the horrors on screen.

Strick is a director who is adventurous, fearless and bold...this is the man who brought James Joyce "Ulysses" to the screen, something many thought impossible (before and after seeing his film) and that sense of fearlessness in particular is evident here. Strick doesn't condemn or condone. He refuses to use music to damn or to elicit sympathy. Here crime and the criminals are simply laid bare before us and the result is a film that forces us to think and, on more than one occasion, to shrink from the words we are hearing.

I cannot remember another film which terrified me as much as this. It is genuinely horrifying. When a rapist describes his thoughts, feelings and motivations for his crime (committed only hours before his interview one assumes) it leaves one feeling a deep sense of dread and revulsion. There are moments when you are forced to think about whether the "system" has created some of these people and to reflect on what could be done to improve the lot of so many...images of urban decay remind us of the poverty of the physical and emotional environment so many people live in. Equally there are times when one feels that one would be happy to pull the lever.

Not a pleasant viewing experience. Not a film that will be broadcast on terrestrial television any time soon. Not a film to snuggle under the blankets and "enjoy". Despite that I am glad that I have seen it and I am glad that there is a film maker honest enough to produce it.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Visible Secret - Filmhouse - 2/2/10

Showing as part of a season of films showcasing the work of Hong Kongs female directors this is a low budget, quirky, ghost story/horror piece that has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek.

Peter meets June in a nightclub and is struck by her Gabrielle style eye-patch but is even more struck by her odd behaviour and her disappearing act the morning after their first night together along with fifty dollars from his wallet. When next they meet June reveals that from an early age she has been able to see ghosts but thanks to an amulet given to her by a priest she was protected but now the amulets powers are waning and, through her left eye only, she can see the dead again.

This does exactly what it says on the tin. It's not a clever film. It's not a film that has been blessed with a big budget. The plot is ridiculous and the acting is slapstick and slap-dash in equal measure. Despite all of that though it is a film that is free from cynicism and that has only one give you a few frights and a few laughs and that is what it delivers.

Glasgow Film Festival 2010 - February 18th - 28th

Now in its sixth year the Glasgow Film Festival is fast forging a reputation as a place to catch some of the finest cinema from around the world. Documentaries, blockbusters, independents, foreign language, horror, realist and more are all available to an ever growing audience.

This years festival promises to be one to remember with showings of Michael Moores "Capitalism: A Love Story" at one end of the spectrum and the remake of "The Crazies" at the other! Of particular interest to me is the season of Japanese cinema which is forming a key part of this years programme with classics like Kurosawas "Ran" and the legendary animie "Akira" showing with the latest offering from Takashi Miike.

While the "other" film festival in Scotland attracts greater attention it would be wise for genuine fans of cinema to keep a close eye on the GFF which, while a toddler in comparison, has a vibrant and exciting programme of films guaranteed to keep audiences entertained, shocked, thrilled and, possibly, confused.