Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Watched - No 10 - Son of Babylon (Mohamed Al Daradji,2009)

http://youtu.be/SbNfnnKEDmg - trailer
One of a recent batch of excellent DVD releases by UK based distribution company Dogwoof, which includes Josh Fox's Gasland (2010) and Michael Madsen's Into Eternity (2010), is Iraqi-Dutch film-maker Mohamed Al Daradji's second feature Son of Babylon. The Baghdad born director, who fled to the Netherlands in 1995, made his debut with Ahlaam (Dreams,2006) before making an accompanying documentary War, God, Love and Madness (2008), both of which were centred around the turbulent period after the fall of Saddam in his native homeland. Son of Babylon continues Al Daradji's evocations of the lives of everyday Iraqi citizens struggling to make sense of past horrors, a changing political environment and social chaos in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's removal. Part fictional road movie and part reportage, Son of Babylon bears a stylistic resemblance to Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 2001 Afghan road movie Kandahar and is equally devastating in its striking visual imagery and emotional weight.

The simple yet emotionally complex narrative sees an elderly Iraqi Kurd, Um-Ibrahim (Shazada Hussein), and her young grandson Ahmed (Yasser Talib) travelling from the mountainous north through the battle ravaged country, including the bombed out Baghdad, to the sands of Babylon in search of Ahmed's missing father Ibrahim. Drafted into Saddam's army in 1991, Ibrahim never returned to his family, just one of thousands to go missing during the brutal despot's reign. The eternally hopeful Um-Ibrahim and the headstrong but naive Ahmed are determined to either find their missing loved one or at least gain some knowledge of what became of him. Following the loosely defined road movie genre conventions - random incidents, interactions with strangers, a journey as much internal as it is physical - Son of Babylon is less about entertainment and more about documentation and exposure. Saying that, it is by no means a hectoring or worthy piece, Al Daradji's verite style capturing of the physical destruction to the landscape and lyrical handling of fraught emotional matters creates a powerful, poetic and haunting excoriation of a nation's painful memories, present day problems and future uncertainties.

The casting of non-professionals in all of the roles lends an authentic edge to a very real situation, as the initially bickering but desperately dependent and affectionate odd couple make their way across the war torn landscape. Whereas many road movies' end destinations are unclear or secondary to the journey itself, Son of Babylon's final destination is crucial to the unfolding narrative. The discovery and exhumation of around 300 mass graves, the consequence of Saddam's vicious attacks on his own people, is a tragic, damning and harrowing end point for the pair, and by extension the countless other families, not only in Iraq but in all countries, to have suffered atrocities of that magnitude. By focusing on the trials of two ordinary people trying to make sense out of chaos, Al Daradji humanises the social, emotional and physical cost to the wider society caught first in the grip of a dictator and then in the aftermath of a country torn apart by war.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Electric Sheep article - Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston,1978)

Given the loose theme of 'aliens' for this month's edition of Electric Sheep, an online magazine devoted to the 'deviant side of cinema', I plumped for the cult Ozploitation shocker Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston,1978). Though not adhering to the traditional 'aliens' image, this dark eco-horror movie positions mankind as the foreign bodies infecting and invading Mother Nature. Check out the article and track down the film, the lyrics 'if you go down to the woods today...' will never have the same meaning after watching it.

Watched - No 9 - Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978)

After a Twitter conversation with a fellow film lover on the subject of writer/director Paul Schrader, I was inspired to seek out and revisit his 1978 directorial debut Blue Collar, which he co-wrote with his brother Leonard. Schrader, whose subsequent writer/director credits include Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), Affliction (1997) and Auto Focus (2002), is best known for providing the screenplays for Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto as a trio of rust belt factory workers at a Detroit car production plant, conforms to Schrader's career long fascination with troubled males as well as taking a savage swipe at racial tensions and Union practices in the States, a hot topic at the time. This gripping snapshot of the American 'working class' features Richard Pryor's strongest onscreen performance, a fitting blues rock soundtrack, a provocative narrative taking in corruption, murder and betrayal and, as to be expected from the pen of Schrader, a sharp,punchy script.

Pryor's Zeke and Keitel's Jerry, overworked, underpaid family men struggling to make ends meet, and Kotto's party loving ex-con Smokey, all sick of the innefectual and tight knit Union bosses, seek to end their financial woes by robbing a safe in the Union's offices. Against the resolutely unglamourous, industrialised landscape, peopled by low paid, tough talking Average Joes, Blue Collar flies off into darker, more subversive territory after the casual, lightly comic set up leading up to the robbery. Finding a paltry amount of cash, but a damning notebook containing a detailed record of illegal loans possibly involving the mob, the three friends find themselves knee deep in suspicion, paranoia and deceit after trying to blackmail the Union bosses with the threat of national exposure. The Schrader brothers pull no punches in slamming corrupt Union practices, going so far as to include a death (shrugged off by the bosses as an accident but strongly implied as a murder) as sinister as it is memorably unique. Rather than being anti-Union, Blue Collar is anti-corruption and pro-the 'little guy' but spares none of its leads the savage consequences of both their and their bosses dubious actions and underhand practices. It is in the fallout after the robbery and the magnitude of the situation the co-workers find themselves in where the narrative makes its mark. Driven initially by a common bond, Zeke, Jerry and Smokey's friendship is torn apart by individual circumstance, Union and FBI machinations and the threat of prison.

Rough around the edges, overtly subjective and uneven in tone it may at times be, but Blue Collar is as hard hitting today as it was on its release, and its pointed commentary, shown through one fictional incident, resonates with the ongoing struggles of the 'working man', corruption in high places and the deep seated inequalities seen across the globe in all areas of society to this day.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Watched - No 8 - A Swedish Love Story (Roy Andersson,1970)

Roy Andersson, described by The Village Voice as 'a slapstick Ingmar Bergman', who has directed only four features in forty years, first went behind the camera in 1970 with A Swedish Love Story. Whilst Andersson's recent films, Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007), have been experimental pieces, largely based around visually poetic vignettes, absurdist comedy and surreal non-narrative sketches peopled by Felliniesque grotesques, A Swedish Love Story is in comparison a much more linear and traditional romantic coming of age story. The shadow of Bergman is evident, and glimpses of Andersson's later stylistic pre-occupations are also present, but Andersson's subtly probing excavation of love,loneliness, marriage and regret is by no means a derivative or minor piece.

At the film's centre is the fledgling romance between teenagers Par (Rolf Sohlman) and Annika (Ann-Sofie Kylin) that blossoms as the adults around them struggle to reconcile themselves to unhappy marriages, thwarted ambitions and the pressures of social status. Andersson and his two young leads beautifully capture the awkwardness, overwhelming emotions, naivety and tenderness of an emerging first love. Peer pressure, tribal cliques, adult interference and differing social backgounds all come into play as the mutual affection and emotional bond grows between the pair. The supporting cast of characters, including Annika's bickering parents, their unfulfilled friends and Par's more stable but socially conservative family are the gloomy, but blackly comic, counterpoint to the physical, and symbolic, hopes and youthful promise of the leads.

Beginning and ending with extended family and friends gatherings, where, conversely, the Bergmanesque themes of isolation, loneliness and death are brought to the fore, A Swedish Love Story is a film in which the travails and pressures of living in a changing society are subtly addressed within an ostensibly light, romantic narrative framework. Anyone familiar with Andersson's extraordinary eye for visual composition and poetic imagery that mirrors the often absurd nature of everyday life will find those attributes clearly on show. The drawn out (anti) climax, featuring a fog bound search for Annika's drunk, depressed and spiritually lost father (a physical representation of contemporary society) is rich in symbolic weight, with the party guests desperately trying to locate the wayward parent and bring him back into the safety of a traditional, loving family home.Recently released on DVD, A Swedish Love Story is certainly of its time in relation to the fashions on display and the folkish country rock soundtrack, but its themes and emotional resonance are as relevant today as they were on its release.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Watched - No 7 - Gasland (Josh Fox,2010)


There's no doubt that we are living through a Golden Age for the documentary film, and for investigative, awareness raising film-makers in particular. Ever since arch prankster/careerist Michael Moore took the Palme D'or at Cannes for Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) an explosion of citizen journalists, activists, campaigners and agitators have graced the big screen. The exposes of Governmental subterfuge, industrial farming, animal cruelty, war and oppression have come thick and fast as production,equipment and editing costs have fallen. Add to that the rise of social networking, alternative platforms for the spreading of information and an air of Global disaffection and the time is ripe for the documentary film.

The latest eye catching expose comes in the form of Josh Fox's Gasland, which utilises all of the recognisable traits of both the traditional and contemporary documentary forms - to-camera monologues, voiceover narration, onscreen titles and graphics, archived and present day footage,interviews and an intervensionist, subjective director - to shed light on the practice of Hydrolic fracturing, or 'Fracking'. The process, essential in releasing the enormous quantities of natural gas hidden underneath vast stretches of the US, involves wells being drilled thousands of feet deep into the earth before water, sand and chemicals are injected into the shale to crack it open and let the gas escape, a huge profit making concern for powerful energy companies. After being offered around $100,000 to allow a company acces to his land to drill a hole, the concerned Fox investigated the process and discovered a mind boggling array of deceit, potentially fatal incidents, extreme health risks and environmental damage. By finding households and sometimes whole towns with poisoned water supplies, which are in no doubt related to the fracking process despite the protests of the energy companies and their lobbying groups, Fox accidentally stumbled on a shocking example of the 'little guy' suffering at the hands of big business. Needless to say he kissed the money goodbye.

The amiable, thoughtful and wryly humourous Fox guides us through an increasingly murky moral and ethical minefield in a film that bares all the hallmarks of a conspiracy thriller that reaches the highest echelons of American officialdom.
The familiar and depressingly predictable figure of Dick Cheney and his assorted cronies raise their heads amidst a dizzying melange of statistics, counter-arguments, corporate and political negligence and rapacious profiteering that is foolish at best and downright criminal at worst. The almost total refusal of any of the energy companies and politicians to grant Fox an interview for the film simply adds to the weight of the damning evidence laid out. Any potential dis-engagement for audiences outside of the US is brought into stark relief by the revelation that Europe is the next potentially huge market for natural gas extraction before other parts of the world are drawn into this hugely controversial practice. Gasland and many other similar documentaries run the risk of preaching to the converted ecologially aware and anti-capitalist masses, but that in no way diminishes the need for these films to be circulated, debated and acted upon. Recommended.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

http://youtu.be/E_gKq200EBk - First official trailer.

Well, as Franklin J. Schaffner's original Planet of the Apes remains one of my favourite movies I approach this latest take on the series with some trepidation. After all, who can forget Tim Burton's lacklustre remake? Also, with the contemporary popularity of all things CGI we could be on the verge of another I Am Legend - stylish set up, impressive realisation of an abandoned city and then...oh, they're cartoon creatures.

Having said that, this first official trailer for Rupert Wyatt's prequel to the original looks promising. With James Franco, Brian Cox, Freida Pinto and the marvellous Andy Serkis doing his monkey business fingers are definitely crossed that this movie will deliver the goods.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Watched - No 6 - Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowski,2010)

http://youtu.be/_0CR2N4xbfQ Cult Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, a graduate of the acclaimed National Film School in Lodz, and the man responsible for Deep End (1970) and The Shout (1978) amongst many others, returns with Essential Killing, a stripped back, visually striking tale of survival amidst an unknown and unforgiving landscape. Vincent Gallo stars, and excels, as an unnamed 'terrorist' captured in the desert by American forces and subsequently tortured and later renditioned to a wintery climate somewhere in Eastern Europe. Whilst being transported across the harsh terrain he escapes after a road accident and embarks upon an unlikely and dangerous bid for freedom, where to kill or be killed is his only foreseeable option.

Filmed in Israel, Poland and Norway, Essential Killing may point to Gallo's character being a Taliban Jihadist, and the orange jumpsuits and black hoods witnessed in the torture sequences certainly conjure up the spectre of Guantanamo Bay, but Skolimowski largely eschews overt political themes to concentrate on a more ambiguous narrative where base instincts and the primitive urge to survive hold sway. Gallo's wordless role, and natural resemblance to a number of ethnic groups, helps to strip away any politicised agenda and leave a stark and at times existential portrait of the limits of human endurance. Reminiscent of both Joseph Losey's underrated, dystopian survival tale Figures in a Landscape (1970) and Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958) Essential Killing dispenses with the philosophising of the former and the racial politics of the latter as Gallo's disoriented, terrified and weakening character battles his pursuers, the beautiful but cruel landscape and his own deteriorating physical and mental state.

As is often the case in Skolimowski's films, the use of sound juxtaposed with moments of silence is integral to the narrative - deafening rock music, tortuous cries, barking dogs, the angry buzz of chainsaws and the opressive whirr of helicopter rotors have a dizzying, nauseous effect on both escapee and audience, leavened in brief moments of respite before resuming their attack on the senses. A deftly handled hallucinogenic sequence, obtuse flashbacks, increasingly bizarre situations and inconclusive climax make Essential Killing a defiantly arthouse, non-commercial and experiential film that mainstream audiences may find alienating and frustratingly esoteric. For me, Skolimowski's latest film is an artistically driven, beautifully constructed and thought provoking piece that is a fine addition to its director's body of work.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Watched - No 5 - The Town (Ben Affleck,2010)

http://youtu.be/BXY_JvOK63c Ben Affleck follows up his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone (2007), an adaptation of Dennis Lahane's novel of the same name, with another Boston set crime drama, this time with the action sequences seriously ramped up. Based in and around Charlestown, a Boston neighbourhood that apparently (to the real-life residents chagrin) is a world leader in churning out bank robbers, The Town, another adaptation, this time of Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves, is a familiar tale of criminal gangs, their unscrupulous bosses and a last heist destined to go belly up. Affleck stars as Doug MacRay, the brains of a hardened, professional outfit responsible for a spate of major robberies. After their latest heist leaves bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) traumatised but with valuable info as to the gang's identities, MacRay first follows, then befriends and eventually begins an affair with her. Determined to break free of his criminal life and begin anew with his new lover, MacRay's dreams hinge on Keesey not discovering who he really is. Jon Hamm, now a household name for his portrayal of Don Draper in Mad Men, plays Adam Frawley, the ruthless, organised FBI agent out to bring the gang to justice and crush MacRay's plans, and he delivers the stand out performance amidst the likes of Jeremy Renner, Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper who all ably flesh out their roles as gang member, crime boss and MacRay's imprisoned father respectively

This is a solid, if derivitive, piece, flawed in terms of plausibility, predictability and its relegation of the female characters to subservient roles certainly, but The Town is strong mainstream film-making nonetheless. As Gone Baby Gone suffered from an implausible ending, The Town also similarly suffers a weak resolution, this time by being all too predicatable, albeit a handsomely staged and impressively executed one.
Affleck is definitely at home behind the camera, confident in his direction, with an expansive eye for location shooting, and assured in his handling of both actors and adapted material. It doesn't break any new ground genre wise, but I've seen many inferior crime films to this one. Affleck is certainly looking like an accomplished director who with fresher, more challenging material could go on to forge an impressive behind the camera career that may well outshine his patchy onscreen one. With full blown action sequences, reminiscent of Michael Mann's Heat (1995), The Town is a largely satisfying Saturday night slice of Hollywood entertainment.

Watched - No4 - Stone (John Curran,2010)

http://youtu.be/KYho06z-_t8 John curran, who directed The Painted Veil (2006) and wrote the screenplay for Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (2010), helms this slow burning indie crime drama starring Robert De Niro, Ed Norton and Milla Jovovich. Released straight to DVD in the UK, the second of Norton's recent movies to be so, after Tim blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass (2009), Stone is a low key character driven piece that, despite it's attention grabbing cast, never really grips enough to live up to it's promise. Norton plays the titular character, a convicted arsonist up for parole, with De Niro as the officer assigned to his case and Jovovich as Stone's femme fatale wife, willing to do pretty much anything to help secure his release. The tagline for the film reads 'some people tell lies, others live them', and that's the narrative in a nutshell, Stone claiming to have reformed but using his wife as bait to lead De Niro's repressed and unhappily married parole officer astray. Double lives, religion, spirituality, sin and guilt shine through as Stone's themes, but they are never truly explored in the script despite the trio of leading names giving committed, solid performances.

Whilst it's certainly stronger than much of De Niro's contemporary output it's lack of strong character development or real dramatic incident leave it as an unspectacular, by the book tale with the chance to see two of America's leading actor's sharing screentime together as it's main draw. Stone wasn't bad, it just wasn't anything special and I can't really see it being anything other than a minor footnote in both Norton and De Niro's careers.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Rogue Cinema review

http://www.roguecinema.com/article2631.html I've been writing reviews of low budget, independent films for RogueCinema.com for the last six months and will be posting links to them on here as and when they go live at the start of each month.

Watched - NO3 - Piranha (Alexandre Aja,2010)

http://youtu.be/l26laWfYxk4 - Well, so much for Piranha. I have to admit I was looking forward to catching up with Aja's updating of Joe Dante's 1978 B-movie, I love a trashy film as much as I do an arthouse production. Granted, I am now well out of the target demographic for these movies but I still love the horror/exploitation genres, they are my rom-coms, my escapism, and every now and again a cracker such as Steve Miner's perfectly formed Lake Placid (1999) comes along and re-affirms my faith in cheap thrills, witty one liners and gory deaths. Piranha, however, was not one of those films, despite lashings of blood and knowing nods to previous killer fish flicks. Featuring an opening cameo a la Scream by Richard Dreyfuss and with several recognisable faces in the cast - Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Jerry O'Connell and Christopher Lloyd - you'd think this would be a fun way to kill ninety minutes right? Well, not in my book. Basically the plot of Jaws grafted onto an extended photshoot for a soft porn site, Piranha, whilst obviously not aiming to win any awards for characterisation or script, could at least have made the characters a little less two dimensional and bland, but no, they didn't bother. The script was utterly lame and the lack of any chemistry between the cast members just made the whole thing flat and uninspired .The special effects were surprisingly poor also, surprising because they were handled by Greg Nicotero who learnt his trade under the tutelage of effects legend Tom Savini. The thing with CGI is that it needs to be so damn good that you don't notice it, not stand out a mile like bad animation, and those fish just didn't cut it.

Aja attemtps to cover up the lack of spark and wit on show by filling as many frames as possible with naked female flesh, mainly Kelly Brook's. I guess that's what it comes down to in the end, as a horny eyed adolescent with a penchant for mass slaughter with my t&a this would have been brilliant, as a seen it all before cynic it was just really tiresome. Damn me for thinking it would be a B-movie to cherish and damn them for going for the lowest common denominator - the hormonal,less discerning and free spending male teen market.

World Film Locations:London

I have recently edited a volume on London for Intellect Books as part of their forthcoming World Film Locations series. A wide range of contributors taken from the worlds of film criticism, journalism and academia discuss the city as it has appeared onscreen in scene analyses and essays which are highlighted with full colour images. Here's a teaser spot from the Big Picture Magazine's website - http://tinyurl.com/6hzc6of

Friday, 8 April 2011

Watched - No2 - Docteur Petiot ( Christian de Chalonge,1990)

Now this was a real oddity. Veteran French star Michel Serrault stars in this portrayal of the eponymous real life serial killer who was active during WWII and responsible for the murders of at least 27 people. Petiot ran an 'escape network' for Jews wishing to flee Paris from the Nazis, the perfect cover for his murderous and profitable actions. Eventually rumbled Petiot then went on the run and disguised and re-invented himself (much like the character in Audiard's A Self Made Hero), until finally being captured, accused of over a hundred crimes and beheaded. I was expecting a sombre, bleak recounting of his crimes in the fashion of 10 Rillington Place, but that couldn't have been further from how Docteur Petiot plays out. Expressionistic, blackly comic and shot through with an absurdist streak, de Chalonge's vision of Paris is unlike any other I've seen. The locations and sets used bring to mind the stark post-industrial landscape of Stalker and the Heath Robinson clutter of Brazil. Serrault plays Petiot like a bizarre cross between a vampire and a clown and de Chalonge's narrative skips along at a pace that only allows the full horror of Petiot's crimes to sink in after the end credits. Docteur Petiot is flawed, characterisation is subdued in favour of imagery, Petiot verges on caricature (a cinematic monster instead of a real one) and the supporting cast are merely cyphers. Having said that, the stylish art direction, horrific basis in fact and Serrault's virtuoso performance make for a decidedly off-kilter watch.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Watched - No1 - A Self Made Hero (Jacques Audiard,1996)

Before firmly establishing himself in the minds of cinema audiences with Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet, Jacques Audiard's second feature A Self Made Hero contained plenty of indicators that he would become a major director. Matthieu Kassowitz, the director of La Haine, stars as a war widow's son who invents a life for himself as a Resistance hero, fooling his way into the heart of French society and a high ranking position within the military. Audiard's black comedy is a little gem, full of visual flourishes, tightly scripted and confidently directed. Audiard seems to be pre-occupied with lone males, often outsiders, constructing identities for themselves and struggling with the consequences and this early career entry is well worth seeking out.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

If you can't beat them join them.

This blog will be a one stop shop for me to share my views on film and television, collect all of my published pieces into one handy place and eventually invite contributions from other bloggers, film critics, journalists, academics and film-makers.