Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Watched - No 15 - Red Hill (Patrick Hughes,2010)

http://youtu.be/M9MouXxXREA - trailer
Red Hill, directed, written, edited and produced by Patrick Hughes in his feature length debut, is the latest of many recent genre pieces to emerge from Australia. After the success of Greg McLean's Wolf Creek (2005) a wave of films reminiscent of the 70s 'Ozploitation' features have come along, including Storm Warning (Jamie Blanks,2007), Rogue (Greg McLean,2007) and The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne,2009). Hughes' movie, which grafts many of the traits of the Western genre (a local 'sheriff', outlaws, endangered townsfolk and horseriding posses) onto a modern day setting in much the same way as Tommy Lee Jones' exceptional The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), may not break any new ground, and at times suffers from one too many cliches, but what it does do it does in a lean and entertaining fashion.

Hughes has assembled a cultish cast, featuring True Blood's Ryan Kwanten, Steve Bisley, best remembered to international audiences as Jim Goose in Mad Max (George Miller,1979), Tommy Lewis, so memorable as the lead in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi,1978) and Kevin Harrington of Neighbours fame, for this stripped back revenge thriller. The economic plot sees Kwanten's Shane Cooper, a young police officer relocated from the city to the small town of Red Hill in Australia's high country starting his first day on the job, one that coincides with the escape from prison of convicted murderer and former resident of Red Hill Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis), who makes a beeline straight for the town, seemingly hellbent on murdering whoever crosses his path. With his fellow officers and townsfolk, including Bisley's no nonsense, domineering Police Chief 'Old Bill', alerted to the situation the town effectively goes into lockdown and prepares itself for Conway's arrival. What follows is a fairly predictable tale, secrets revealed, shoot-outs and the embattled Cooper caught up in events, but it's done with a fair amount of panache and romps along at a considerable pace. Hughes inserts an off kilter sub-plot into proceedings, involving an escaped Panther, and gives the facially disfigured Conway a near supernatural ability to dodge bullets. The Western genre milieu and plot points recall Ted Post's Hang 'em High (1968) and whilst the climax is no great surprise there's a lot of fun getting there.

Red Hill is an ideal Friday night B-movie with its enthusiastic performances, great use of location, head on narrative and gruesome action sequences. Hughes proves himself to be an adept director and should carve out an interesting niche as a genre film-maker.

Watched - No 16 -13 Assassins (Takashi Miike,2010)

http://youtu.be/_-IzbkXo7bo - trailer

A new film from Takashi Miike is always a reason for excitement for his many admirers around the world. This is, after all, the prolific Japanese director who since 1991 has given us Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001), Gozu (2003) and Zatoichi (2007) amongst his seventy or so genre crossing film, video, stage and TV productions. 13 Assassins, a remake of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 Samurai epic of the same name, and loosely based on a real historical incident is magnificently realised by Miike and his cast and crew. Featuring one of the great screen villians of recent years, the terminally sadistic Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), jaw droppingly choreographed fight sequences and plenty of Miike's trademark ultra-violence, 13 Assassins is a blast of pure cinematic entertainment. Miike's masterful control of both action and narrative is fully on show in this film, from the slow burning set up to the explosion of sustained action that erupts, 13 Assassins further enhances Miike's already strong reputation as well as showing the Hollywood behemoths just how action films should be done.

The economic plot sees the trusted, veteran Samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) secretly recruited by a government official to assassinate the current Shogun's brother, Lord Naritsugu, in order to stop his brutal rise to power. With his nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada) and ten other hired Samurai warriors, Shinzaemon sets out to lay a trap in the town of Ochiai for Lord Naritsugu as he travels, under heavy protection, cross country on official business. The thirteenth assassin comes in the shape of Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), a hunter found suspended in a cage as punishment for making amorous advances to his boss' wife. Koyata, a hybrid of Kikuchiyo from Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and a less annoying Jar Jar Binks, brings a small does of light comedic relief to the Operatic levels of violence and deadly serious political machinations that dominate 13 Assassins as well as providing an outsiders view into the intricate and intimate inner workings of the Samurai brotherhood. After putting all of the elements into place, including flachback scenes of vicious torture and murder implemented by the dead eyed, preturnaturally cruel Lord Naritsu, Miike unleashes an audacious orgy of action and bloodshed that at times beggars belief in its sheer ferocity and relentless pace. The town itself becomes a necessary part of the assassins' weaponry, outnumbered as they are by 13 to about 200 of Lord Naritsu's guards, as hastily constructed gates, walkways, explosives, traps and at one point a stampede of burning pigs(!) help to redress the balance of power as the ambushed guards are dispatched in wave after wave of stunningly executed set pieces.

Reaching a predictable but still satisfying climax, 13 Assassins delivers in spades, the Dirty Dozen-esque narrative drawing the viewer in firstly by laying down the backstory and then by pulling out of all of the stops in the film's final hour. I'm not an ardent fan of either action films per se or Samurai epics but 13 Assassins is impossible to resist such is its technical brilliance, innovative action sequences and sheer bloody minded effort to entertain. We're in June now and Miike's 13 Assassins is still the most fun I've had a cinema so far this year. A 'Total Massacre' indeed.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Big Picture Magazine

http://www.magcloud.com/browse/Issue/198491 - Latest issue
The Big Picture Magazine issue 14 is now available online, and this issue the focus is on non-spaces, the places in between and liminal locations in films. My pieces are on Werner Herzog's incredible documentary 'Grizzly Man' and a spotlight piece on London film locations and some of the films that have evocatively used the city as a central aspect of their individual narratives. Happy reading.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

World Film Locations:Melbourne

After wrapping up my editing duties on Intellect Books' World Film Locations:London, I've turned my attention down under to focus on Melbourne for my next edited volume in the series. With contributors drawn from the worlds of academia, journalism and film criticism the diverse film representations of this popular and richly cosmopolitan city will be addressed. Drawn from all eras, the book consists of essays and scene reviews of films covering all manner of genres and themes - from the recent highly acclaimed crime drama Animal Kingdom (David Michod,2010), via Paul Cox's studies of loneliness as seen in Man of Flowers (1983), via the 'Ocker' comedy Alvin Purple (Tim Burstall,1973) right back to the first feature length film produced anywhere in the world, the historically based bushranger movie The Story of the Kelly Gang (Charles Tait,1906).

Melbourne may not immediately spring to mind when thinking of major cities in cinema in comparison to New York, Paris, London and Rome, but this volume will shine a light on how film-makers, both indigenous and visiting, have used this historic and cinematic urban environment to create an impressive and lasting collection of films that in their specific focus on one city also inform wider views on life in 'the city' around the world.

Watched - No 14 - Women Without Men (Shirin Neshat,2009)

http://youtu.be/0CGxQlcrlYw - trailer
Renowned Iranian, but New York based, visual artist Shirin Neshat has made her feature debut with this adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur's 1990 magic realist novel Women Without Men. This impressive, visually rich film transports the viewer back to the Iran of the 1953 CIA backed coup d'etat, during which the lives and fates of four women become intertwined. Having not read the source novel it's difficult for me to say how successful it is as an adaptation, but taken on its own merits Neshat's film is a thoughtful, complex and lyrical look at the internal and external pressures faced by women living under the harsh conditions of an oppressive regime and strict religious dogmas.

Neshat's controlled, painterly direction allows the stories of the four lead characters to take centre stage, keeping the chaotic events of the coup d'etat largely in the background. With the beautiful environment of a rural orchard estate offering sanctuary, peace and spiritual nourishment to the women all seeking respite from a dour collection of male family members, prostitute using hypocrites and arrogant husbands, Women Without Men becomes rich in metaphor, emotional engagement and political viewpoints. The ghost of Munis (Shabnam Toloui), driven to commit suicide by the social and religious constraints under which she lives, takes to wandering the streets of Tehran, bearing witness to the political upheaval around her in the film's richest magic realist strain. Prostitute Zarin, heartwrenchingly played by Orsolya Toth, makes her way to the rural sanctuary and is found Ophelia like in the orchard's pond, a physical and mental wreck, damaged by the faceless (literally at one point) customers that abuse her on a daily basis. The metaphors relating to the voiceless, enslaved and emotionally malnourished leads, and the striking imagery that compounds their past and present lives, continues throughout this quietly provocative film. Neshat's adaptation is a contemplative experience, oblique in places and open to interpretation on many levels, and requires full engagement with the often poetic individual vignettes and scenarios to form an appreciation of the film as a whole.

Whilst being a beautifully realised period piece dealing with specific historical situations, Women Without Men also resonates on a wider scale with the political, social, cultural and religious oppression that continues to blight the citizens of many countries to this day. Neshat, with her years of experience as a visual artist and backed with impressive performances from her cast, has adroitly made the transition to director in this studied, arthouse exploration of female emancipation from a brutal, narrow minded Patriarchy.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Watched - No 13 - Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe,2009)

http://youtu.be/bKRxDP--e-Y - trailer
Gaspar Noe's first feature length film since 2002's gruelling Irreversible has been described as a 'deranged,psychedelic melodrama', and it certainly pushes the envelope in a number of genre bending, stylistically challenging areas. I found Irreversible to be something of an interesting failure -visually impressive,artistically experimental but ultimately an auteur driven exercise in style over substance - and I have much the same feeling towards Enter the Void. No question about it, Noe works to his own unique vision and Enter the Void contains many truly memorable images and masterfully executed sequences that showcase his undoubted talent as a director. The problem for me was that for all the dizzying camerawork, shot composition, narrative manipulation and audio-visual flair on show the film still felt flat, curiously unengaging and ultimately empty.

Enter the Void tells the story of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a drug dealer living in Tokyo, and deep into experimenting with his own merchandise, whose intense relationship with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) transcends the physical and enters into the incorporeal after he is shot and killed in a drugs raid. Oscar's spirit leaves his fatally wounded body and continues to watch over his grief stricken sibling. Noe uses the camera to evoke Oscar's wandering spirit, and the majority of the film is shot in a P.O.V. fashion, ostensibly placing the viewer inside Oscar's mind, thoughts, soul and emotions as he attempts to care for and love Linda from the other side. The unquestionably impressive visual journey undertaken by Oscar's roaming, formless presence creates a woozy,vertiginous and relentless conduit for Noe's exploration of love, mortality, sorrow and grief. If only the characters hadn't been so insufferably self obsessed, dull, unsympathetic and gratingly annoying. Not for one second did I care for any of them, and spending the best part of two and a half hours inside Oscar's 'soul' was a wearying experience. Granted, the film is centred on a disparate group of ex-pats inhabiting the underworld of Tokyo, so they were never going to be a laugh-a-minute group, but the endless whining, morose behaviour and narcissistic attitudes displayed by the leads and the supporting characters, even before Oscar's death, makes for an alienating viewing experience.

With some restraint in the editing department, and a deeper focus on providing characters that the viewer could genuinely feel for, Enter the Void could have been so much more than just an, admittedly stylish, disorienting head-trip. This stroboscopic, neon dominated frenzy of drug taking, explicit sex and random acts of violence, where ideas surrounding familial bonds, fragile friendships, death and rebirth, the corporeal and the metaphysical are primarily addressed visually, may linger in the mind due to its technical virtuosity but it failed to register on anything other than a superficial level emotionally or spiritually. That's why Enter the Void was a disappointment, feeling more like a flashy, drawn out avant-garde music video rather than the breathtaking, touching, haunting and narratively revolutionary treatment of universal themes that it was striving to be. All the elements were there for Noe, but Enter the Void feels like a missed chance to me - an experience yes, but a frustrating and unsatisfactory one.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Watched - No 12 - Pina 3D (Wim Wenders,2011)

http://youtu.be/ouEc-3MlGZ4 - trailer

After haughtily turning my nose up at the latest wave of 3D films (following on from the 50s and the 80s), I finally caved in, donned the specs and took the plunge with Wim Wenders' latest film. Having firmly allied myself to the Mark Kermode school of thinking regarding 3D (just a craze, financially driven, artistically pointless), I'll happily hold my hands up and say he, other detractors and I are (largely) wrong. Wenders' documentary eulogy to the late coreographer Pina Bausch, of whom I admit I knew very little beforehand, captivated me from the first frame to the last with its visual beauty, artistic flair and technical virtuosity.

Filmed in Wuppertal, the German city where Bausch's dance theatre is based, Pina 3D blends staged performances of Bausch's pieces, to- camera monologues from the members of her ensemble, brief archive footage of Bausch herself and further performances filmed around the city and the surrounding countryside. Whilst the performers themselves offer little real insight into Bausch, their artistic bon mots perhaps being the only superfluous addition to the film, it matters little as the physical skill, mental discipline and emotional passion displayed in the performances of Bausch's kinetic, often highly complex, pieces speaks volumes for both themselves and their late coreographer. Wenders has stated that after struggling for years with how to capture the dancers and the dance pieces in a suitably expressive way on film that it was after seeing the concert film U23D, that he realised that 3D technology was the answer to his artistic dilemma. It is in the extended dance sequences, both onstage and in the vastly differing physical environments of Wuppertal, where Wenders' decision is proved thrillingly right. With sequences shot to capture the full stage set up for the individual pieces both in close up,from a distance and from many angles and others that take in Wuppertal's industrial zones, wooded areas,city centre and desert like outskirts, Wender's cinematic eye, Bausch's breathtaking works and the 3D technology compliment each other to produce one richly satisfying whole . The sheer depth of field available allows for the full impact of Bausch's dynamic and meticulous pieces to be felt. Obviously, nothing can compare to seeing the likes of Cafe muller and Vollmond performed live, but Wenders has undoubtedly produced the next best thing, and artistically raised the bar for 3D to a dizzying new high.

Pina 3D leaves no doubt in my mind that in the right hands, and with the right material, 3D can significantly enrich a film, and that's the nub of the matter. I have no interest whatsoever in seeing a mainstream Hollywood film in which the technology is used simply to put bums on seats, and that is why it is being used in the majority of cases. It takes a director of note, which Wenders certainly is, to not allow the 3D process itself to dominate the film or be its main draw, and in Pina 3D Wenders has impressively incorporated new technology within a project to strengthen all aspects of the finished piece. Bravo.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Watched - No 11 - Oranges & Sunshine (Jim Loach,2010)

http://youtu.be/VEQMqQRc1jg - trailer
Following in the formidable and decades spanning footprint of his father Ken, Jim Loach has directed his first film,Oranges and Sunshine. After abandoning a proposed career in journalism and spending the last decade directing for television Loach junior has made the transition to the big screen to tackle a subject that wouldn't seem out of place in his illustrious father's distinguished CV. This true life tale recounts the story of Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys' dogged fight to reunite estranged family members after a forced relocation scheme that sent thousands of underprivileged children from the UK to live in Australia and Canada came to light in the mid 80s.

The always excellent Emily Watson takes the lead role as Humphreys, whose perserverance and sense of moral outrage led her to establish an ongoing campaign that brought the issue worldwide attention. Promised 'oranges and sunshine', many of the children, some wrongly told that their parents were dead, instead found hard labour, emotional and physical cruelty, and in the worst scenarios sexual abuse at the hands of priests. With strong supporting roles for Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, and shot on location in the UK and Australia, Oranges and Sunshine features impressive performances from the cast and needs little embellishment in terms of narrative drama, but is a solid rather than truly memorable film. Loach's direction is, however, fittingly understated, never taking the attention away from the story, but at times the script itself is too expository, somewhat diminishing the emotional power of the individual stories of the now adult victims of the morally and ethically abhorrent scheme. The film is at its strongest when the over-earnest dialogue is subjugated in favour of imagery and moments of silence. Weaving's quietly spoken and slightly unkempt Jack, with his weather-beaten, furrowed brow and Wenham's Len, stand-offish, uptight and intense, say more with their appearance about their troubled lives than words ever could. In the films most devastating and emotionally charged scene, a visit by Len and Margaret to see the priests at the heart of some of the most damning accusations of abuse, sees their mere presence leaving the men of God literally speechless, damned by their silence.

With the focus inevitably mainly on Humphreys herself (the film is based on her own written recollections of the period), and on the personal sacrifices she made along the way that threatened her own family life, the full impact of lives broken, derailed and needlessly altered doesn't carry as much weight as it could.Loach's film has its heart most definitely in the right place, but ultimately feels a little too worthy, whilst having the look of a glorified television drama rather than a fully fledged cinematic experience. There's no denying the fine work done by Humphreys and any exposure of scandalous activity is always to be encouraged and deserves to be noted in itself, but overall Oranges and Sunshine felt unsatisfactory and run of the mill .Philip Noyce's true life tale of three aboriginee girls escaping from forced servitude and traversing the inhospitable Australian landscape, Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), another tale of shameful colonial behaviour, treads a similar path to Loach's movie but is superior in its marrying of historic incident and poetic imagery to create a lasting, powerful emotional response.

Electric Sheep article - Dark Days (Marc Singer,2000)

http://youtu.be/MjjQJipwSxQ - trailer

For this month's edition of Electric Sheep the theme is 'secret societies', and to tie in with a screening at the East End Film Festival on Monday, May 2nd I've reviewed the extra-ordinary documentary 'Dark Days'. Made over a few years in the late 90s Dark Days focuses on a community of homeless people living in the disused subway tunnels underneath New York. To read about this eye opening film follow the link - http://tinyurl.com/6zr8f6a.