30 December 2008

HUNGER (Dir. Steve McQueen, 2008, UK) - 'You're afraid of life'

The Northern Ireland conflict or ‘The Troubles’ as they have been referred to in the mass media has been a complex and problematic political issue to represent on screen without somebody, usually the director, being criticised for a lack of impartiality. Though the British media represented the troubles as a sectarian conflict between the Catholic minority and the empowered Protestant majority who took their orders directly from Whitehall, the IRA, the Republican movement and supposed terrorist organisation, took a contrary ideological approach that interpreted the conflict as a Marxist class struggle. Under the presidency of Bill Clinton, the possibility of some kind of peaceful settlement climbed back up the agenda of international politics and the victory of New Labour unveiled a chance for Tony Blair to develop his position as a credible political statesman.

As Clinton and Blair tried to negotiate a new settlement between the disillusioned political parties, a cycle of Hollywood films tried to probe the complexity of the Northern Ireland conflict by tending to focus on the effects of terrorism as manifested by the IRA in films like ‘Patriot Games’ and ‘The Devil’s Own’. Most of these studio financed pictures were aimed at a mainstream audience and usually featured ‘A’ list Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford. The producer and director, Jim Sheridan, was extremely influential in trying to make films about the Northern Ireland conflict in a way that was beneficial to both audience tastes and the people and places being represented.

The commercial and critical high point of the wave of Northern Ireland themed films of the 90s was Jim Sheridan’s overwrought but moving examination of the wrongful imprisonment of The Guildford Four. ‘In the Name of the Father’ is a very manipulative film that is anchored by Daniel Day Lewis’ astounding performance as Gerry Conlon, an individual who sees the conflict from a number of overlapping and contradictory perspectives whilst in prison. His eventual fight for justice is seen very much as a noble, humanist cause and the catharsis Sheridan evokes at the end of the film is unquestionably sentimental and melodramatic. However, the film was a worldwide commercial success and even though the script was criticised for fabricating certain elements of the truth, it nevertheless empowered Sheridan to go and produce the much grittier and powerful ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 2002.

Universally acclaimed for its unflinching and frightening level of realism, ‘Bloody Sunday’ was commissioned by ITV to commemorate the anniversary of the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre in which British paratroopers indiscriminately gunned down and killed 13 unarmed protesters who were marching through Derry as part of a peaceful Northern Ireland Civil Rights protest. On its release, the film was criticised by the conservative elements of the British press for demonising the British paratroopers and presenting a biased account of events. Following on from ‘Bloody Sunday’, Sheridan and Greengrass reunited for the equally powerful indictment of New Labour failings in ‘Omagh’, another television production that dramatised a catastrophic bombing and the affects on the victims of the community who begin a campaign to uncover an ugly truth about a British foreign policy which had remained virtually the same under a New Labour government.

In 2006, UK film maker Ken Loach directed ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’, a period film that documented the origins and evolution of the Irish Republican movement, humanising the Republican volunteers and showing great empathy as they are transformed into a guerrilla resistance movement of assured political integrity. Like Greengrass before him, Loach too was another easy target for the right wing tabloid newspapers who accused him of romanticising the IRA and condoning terrorism as a form of resistance. Ironically, it went on to become Ken Loach’s most commercially successful film at the UK box office, and it is undoubtedly his finest film to date. ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ walked away with the Palme D’Or in 2006, an indication of how loved Loach is in Europe and particularly France as a superior film maker. A similar fate befell Steve McQueen’s directorial debut this year at Cannes where his film ‘Hunger’ was awarded the Camera D’Or, receiving a rapturous critical praises.

What strikes most about a film like ‘Hunger’ is how thoughtfully McQueen transforms a prison movie into an expressionistic painting, down playing the ideological content of a film so that the highly politicised subject matter of the 1981 hunger strike in the Maze prison never drowns out the real voice of this story, that of Bobby Sands, a political prisoner. McQueen strips away the traditional associations we have with a film about Northern Ireland by steering clear of the ‘realist’ trap and embracing his own art fuelled background. ‘Hunger’ seems like an experiment but it is a successful one in how McQueen focuses on the textures and surfaces of the agonising torture Sands is made to suffer at the hands of a nihilistic prison institution. Other then the opening, execution and flashback sequences, ‘Hunger’ is a frighteningly claustrophobic film as the camera rarely ventures outside the space occupied by Bobby Sands. The maddening sense of estrangement is deepened by McQueen’s strikingly sterile and blank compositions, repeatedly emphasising the sickly, lifeless colours of the prison; the excrement that adorns the walls of the prison cells is perhaps the only visible sign left of human existence.

But what separates and distinguishes ‘Hunger’ from many of the UK films released in 2008 and other films about Northern Ireland is the detailed and perhaps even obsessive attention to sound. This is very much a film about ‘listening’ and harks back to a Bressonian rigour for sound. The sound design by Paul Davies, having worked on UK films like ‘Bullet Boy’ and ‘The Proposition’, is yet another expressionistic achievement, utilising a rich, densely layered series of sounds that become much more significant in the final section as Bobby Sands is reduced to a skeletal, bleeding spectre of death.

The violence inflicted upon the prisoners is not physical for McQueen, it comes through listening, an element of cinema which is much more powerful when trying to make the spectator feel the emotion of violence. It is understandable why McQueen relies on sound so significantly throughout ‘Hunger’ especially when you consider we are living in an age of increasing desensitisation to violence. The violence and death brought on by the sanitised nature of 24 hour news channels has blurred the line between film violence and the kind of casual violence we encounter on a daily basis. McQueen’s formal emphasis on sound is magnificently handled and his ability to make us listen and hear the many forms of violence perpetrated by British imperialism puts into sharp perspective the level of normalisation we all share when ‘watching’ an act of violence being depicted on screen.

The issue of morality, politics and religion is distilled into one daring take between Bobby Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) that lasts for 17 minutes. Much of the ideological conviction of the film rests largely on the nature of this conversation, with Sands adamantly trying to defend his suicidal mindset as Cunningham’s Father Moran argues rationally for a political compromise. Though this decisive moment becomes purely theatrical in its formal execution, it is performed with a conversational sincerity and camaraderie that underlines the infinitely futile and self destructive nature of a generational conflict.

Thatcher’s presence looms large over the film, but unlike Shane Meadow’s ‘This is England’ in which Thatcher makes an immediate appearance in the opening montage, here she is relegated very much to an abstract position as McQueen selects sound bites from her various responses to the demands of the prisoners by juxtaposing her words to tracking shots of the cold, empty prison, proving the point that prisoners like Bobby Sands were effectively worthless and insignificant in the context of Britain trying to maintain its grip over Northern Ireland. Steve McQueen is at the start of something wonderful and his career as a film maker looks set to be very promising and exciting.

29 December 2008

CHE: Part 1 / The Argentine (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008, Spain) - 'People are nothing but the representation of an ideology'

Political cinema seems to have really come of age ever since George W Bush decided to elect himself president. Hollywood considers itself to have been at the forefront of this political renaissance but the studios have always shown a reluctance to finance films that are overtly political in their content. The capitalist nature of an industry like Hollywood naturally favours conservatism as it seeks to offer escapism and temporary solutions to audiences encouraged to perceive cinema as merely an entertaining distraction. Yet such a coercive ethos seems to be absent from much of European cinema and the film industry of other nations. When Spike Lee embarked on his controversial 'Malcolm X' project in the 90s, the initial commitment by Warner Bros. ended in a much publicised battle between a director who felt he had been betrayed and a studio that seemed to back track on its promise of supporting the political interests of a film which was documenting one of the most influential leaders of the 2oth Century.

Perhaps race was the last thing on the minds of the studio, perhaps what they were scared of more than anything else was the idea of financing a film that romanticised the whole idea of political revolution and black militancy. Ideologically, Malcolm X for any Hollywood studio was going to be problematic, and such a condition of political amnesia and conservative consensus still determines funding and financing decisions. Even today, a film with a strong political dimension is unlikely to be given the green light by a studio unless a certain star or a powerful director is attached to the project. But even then limitations are immediately imposed, usually in the form of a severely restricted budget and an encouragement to make alterations and changes to an original screenplay which may be too political. It is safe to conclude that Hollywood prefers films that are apolitical, reinforcing the dominant political point of view.

Soderbergh’s new 2 part political documentary on the revolutionary guerrilla fighter and leader, Che Guevera, is being mentioned in the mainstream press as if this is another extension and confirmation of Hollywood’s recent love affair with political cinema and undying endorsement of liberalism. Yet I was surprised to discover that the commercially and artistically genuine combination of Benicio Del Toro and Steven Soderbergh to make a film on of the most significant cultural icons of the modern era was denied financing by every major Hollywood studio. Costing up to $60 million, the budget for ‘Che’ was raised mainly through pre selling the distribution rights. Had Soderbergh gone to the studios with a proposal that criticised and denounced Che Guevara’s Marxist ideologies and anti-American sentiments then surely the studios would have been fighting over each other to finance the film.

Yet when you consider the track record of a film maker like Soderbergh who learned quite shrewdly to balance the commercials interests of the studio and his own auteur pursuits, it is still hard to believe he was turned away in such a disheartening way. So can we then say this is Soderbergh’s first ‘world cinema’ film? It definitely adheres to many of the conventions that makes a film to be categorised as world cinema; the use of subtitles, the documentary newsreel approach, the episodic narrative, non closure, natural lighting, the issue of funding. In my opinion, it is undoubtedly an example of world cinema film making and perhaps this explains why it is currently being snubbed by American critics and award nominations; its ‘otherness’ deems it to be foreign and thus it has naturally been pushed to one side.

Premiering at Cannes in 2008, ‘Che’ is by far Soderbergh’s most mature, political and accomplished film of his career. It is also one of the fiercest and bravest political films in recent years, and a film that seems to celebrate the possibility of revolutionary ideals by offering a stinging attack on American imperialism. A huge fan of Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers’, a classic study of colonialism, terrorism and the resistance of an entire nation, Soderbergh captures such a raw, undiluted and energetic spirit of human resistance and empathy in many of the key moments in ‘Che’, and such a parallel offers one of the clearest ways of looking at a uncomplicated film like ‘Che’. It is uncomplicated foremost in the documentary approach Soderbergh utilises as a stylistic technique, opting for very simple camera set ups, keeping the camera at a distance, and observing the figure of Guevara as though he was just another manifestation of what is represented as the people’s revolution.

The authenticity on display is a remarkable achievement for Soderbergh, underlining a faith in realism that has been absent from much of his work. The observational documentary style and deliberate rejection of historically emotional moments ensures the film never sentimentalises the revolution and that Guevara remains at a distance as a mythical political enigma. Soderbergh’s real triumph with this intimate political epic is the zeal with which he captures and depicts the process of revolution, not being afraid to focus on the micro details of peripheral characters, so that by the time we reach the capture of Santa Clara in 1958, the ideology of Marxist revolution is simply not another unexplained and lingering Hollywood after thought. Benicio Del Toro spent 7 years researching Che Guevara and he was the one who approached Soderbergh to direct. Perfectly cast, Benicio Del Toro’s astonishing performance overshadows both Frank Langella and Sean Penn’s much talked about portrayal of two other misunderstood political figures; Richard Nixon and Harvey Milk. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Guevara, Del Toro never imitates, embodying the humanism of the man with a humility and ease that makes him appear benign but shrewd in the decisions he takes. The humanism Del Toro invests in his performance is wholly convincing and it is this spark of humanity which seems to be missing from the performances of both Langella and Penn. Soderbergh and Del Toro collaborate brilliantly to ensure that Guevara is seen in the context of an infinite set of roles including that of a teacher, leader, poet, orator, negotiator, and guerrilla fighter; the achievements of Guevara are simply awe inspiring.

In today’s skewed political world, Guevara would have been demonised as a vicious terrorist, not a revolutionary leader. The black and white sequences that depict his short visit to New York so that he could address the United Nations about the glaringly obvious political hypocrisy propagated by American imperialism and its domination over the economic situation in Latin America is yet another confirmation of the film’s fearless and uncompromising approach to the supposedly inflammatory political content. A revolutionary addressing the United Nations is a scenario that would be all but impossible in today’s current climate as revolutionaries are not political leaders anymore; they are vilified as terrorists and paraded in the media as left wing agitators who wish to make socialism a real possibility.

At the end of the film, when Guevara and his army get word that the American stooge ‘Batista’ has fled Havana, an incredible sense of euphoria sweeps across the town of Santa Clara. It is an unflinchingly poignant moment in light of the forced liberation that has taken place in Iraq recently. The liberation we see in Santa Clara is truthful, honest and relatively bloodless because revolution is in no way forced, it has sprung from a real determination and hunger to want freedom at all costs. No wider political or economic motivation exists. It truly is a people’s revolution unlike the recent one in Iraq. Liberation cannot be imposed upon a nation; it has to come out of a genuine want for change. As Guevara and his revolutionary army leave Santa Clara to make their journey to Havana so that they can join Fidel Castro, Guevara instructs a group of soldiers to return the Cadillac they have requisitioned as it would look inappropriate and hypocritical for revolutionary heroes like themselves to be seen in the same light as the corrupt, ruling elite which they have only just defeated. It seems like a trivial moment and relatively insignificant in the context of what has happened and what is about to unfold in Cuba, but the political value he sees in the symbol of the car illustrates how men like Guevara were true to their beliefs and that political leadership demanded that one act responsibly and truthfully at all times. Such moral and political integrity has come to define the greatness of men like Che Guevara.

25 December 2008

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (Dir. Kim-Ji Woon, South Korea, 2008) - 'Such ingratitude after all the times I saved your life'

South Korean film maker, Kim-Ji Woon's eagerly awaited follow up to his 2006 noirish gangster flick, 'A Bittersweet Life', is nothing less than spellbinding, breathtaking and mesmerising cinema that succeeds in putting to shame the vast majority of pedestrian mainstream Hollywood cinema. Labelled by Kim-Ji Woon as an 'oriental western', 'The Good, The Bad, The Weird' finds an extraordinary degree of post modern pleasure in paying inventive homage to the cinematic influences of films like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and 'The Good, the bad and the ugly'.

It has become increasingly difficult for contemporary film makers to pay homage to favourite films and directorial influences without falling into the Tarantino inspired trap of appearing as if you are simply imitating rather than acknowledging the history of cinema. Each film Tarantino has directed or written a screenplay for have in some way been inspired by his own love of Hollywood cinema, but today's cine literate audience seem prepared to overlook such a superficial trait as Tarantino knows never to devalue the work of another film maker. Admittedly, Tarantino has tended to simply lift entire sequences and plot lines from the endless films he has seen, yet once again, his ear for dialogue remains one of his key strengths as a film maker and perhaps it is this element that has helped him transform the idea of homage into a much celebrated art form.

Tarantino is a film maker who is much loved in Europe especially France, but the recent breed of South Korean film makers like Park Chan Wook and Kim-Ji Woon share a set of similar sensibilities particularly when it comes to the representation of violence and masculinity. Tarantino's hugely successful 'Kill Bill' films drew influences and inspirations from everything to Sergio Leone and the Kung Fu cinema of South East Asia, and he undoubtedly made the cult films of Hong Kong fashionable again for film makers and audiences alike. With 'The Good, The Bad, The Weird', Kim-Ji Woon acknowledges the influence of American cinema, referencing the films of both Leone and Tarantino in excitedly, breathless bursts of stylish excess that underline the genre versatility of his oeuvre.

It is wrong to dismiss this film as merely a remake of Leone's definitive Dollars film, 'The Good, The Bad & The Ugly', but the obsessive search for lost treasure and the greedy nature of the central characters is firmly rooted in the iconographic details of the Spaghetti Western genre. Opening with a beautifully executed train heist, Kim-Ji Woon manages to convey an exceptionally high level of expertise and adventure with most of the set pieces, many of which have been meticulously storyboarded. Working on a budget of around $20 million (it is the most expensive South Korean film), it is hard to fathom how Kim-Ji Woon is able to construct such an epic canvas when faced with budgetary constraints, but he does so with such undying confidence, inadvertently ridiculing the severe economic excesses plaguing Hollywood productions and reiterating the need for a kind of 'moderate' cinema.

The intertextual link between Tarantino and Kim-Ji Woon is their use of the 1970s disco song, 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood', a song that features an enthralling instrumental interlude, which makes for the perfect musical complement to a rollicking chase sequence on the plains of ancient Manchuria. Another similarly impressive sequence occurs towards the middle of the film in which a hypnotic gun fight unfolds to the image of 'the good' swinging across the skyline of a Leone inspired rain drenched shanty town; its a fantastically insane moment yet it works because Kim-Ji Woon shoots the entire sequence with an infantile perspective. As this is the most expensive South Korean film to date, it only seems appropriate that it features three of the most recognisable and popular stars of the Korean new wave. Song Kang-ho is perhaps the strongest actor of his generation, receiving acclaim for his uncanny darkly comic performance style in films such as 'Memories of Murder', 'Sympathy for Mr Vengeance' and 'The Host'. Kang-ho is perfectly cast in the role of Yun Te-Gu/The Weird, a likable outlaw who is prepared to go to any lengths to disguise his past and seek out the lost treasure.

Unlike his contemporaries, Kim-Ji Woon is in no way a director who uses cinema to propagate his political views yet this may just be the first occasion at which we see clear evidence of some kind of shift in confronting South Korea's past and its dubious relationship with Japan; set in the 30s, the Japanese Army are depicted as a monolithic symbol of imperial domination. In terms of genre, Kim-Ji Woon relishes the final showdown and climatic gunfight, evoking the memory of not only the spirit of 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly', but also paying tribute to the resourcefulness of Clint Eastwood's 'The Man With No Name' figure.

The hunt for the treasure like the one in Leone's masterpiece is merely a Hitchcockian McGuffin used to sustain dramatic interest, yet even though the film does not need to do this, it seems as if Kim-Ji Woon finds it gratifying to conclude his oriental western in accordance to the traditions of the genre. However, the final moments of the film hint at the looming possibility of a sequel and second part in what may turn out to be South Korea's response to the Dollars trilogy.

23 December 2008

THE SERVANT (Dir. Joseph Losey, 1963, UK) - 'The Pinteresque Class Struggle'

The McCarthy inspired communist witch hunts that took place in the 1950s and the subsequent blacklist have become a shameful record and moment in the history of American politics, serving to undermine a brand of emotional liberalism Hollywood felt it had articulated vigorously in many of its films. However, it would take many decades of soul searching and eventual forgiveness for the Hollywood liberals to come to terms with the humiliation of the McCarthy era. Joseph Losey was one of the film makers who found himself being persecuted by the ideological propaganda of McCarthyism, forcing him into exile after his exposure as a communist sympathiser. Yet exile for many of those who choose to settle in either England or France (Jules Dassin) led to an artistic renaissance, and this was no better illustrated in the immense critical success Losey enjoyed in England. Arriving just in time for the explosion of new British film talent and the emergence of swinging London, Losey was lucky enough to collaborate with Harold Pinter, one of Britain's finest playwrights, on three films which provided some of the sharpest and most insightful criticisms of the British class system, proving how even in the liberated era of the 60s, class still maintained a grip on the mindset of mainstream British society.

Released in 1963, 'The Servant' was the first Pinter/Losey collaboration, focusing on the distinct class separations that exist between the tenuous 'master and servant'. Tony (James Fox), the aristocratic master and representation of the British ruling class hires a man servant, Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) to tend to the everyday workings of a posh new house he has bought in an upmarket area of London. However, Barrett becomes than more just a servant as Tony grants him a freedom in the house that leads to an unexpected reversal of roles. Pinter shapes the thematic idea of the class struggle between Tony and Barrett through a repeated emphasis on the claustrophobic and repressively ordered nature of the house, which eventually disintegrates into an image of buffoonery and anarchy as initiated by the ambiguous, contemptible Barrett.

Some of the most acute and frightening dissections of British society have tend to come from film makers outside of the UK who like Losey were able to use their marginalised position to present the stark complexities of the class system in a way that transcended the work of most indigenous UK film makers. This continues to be the case even today when you consider how a film like 'Children of Men', which was directed by a Mexican film maker; Alfonso Cuaron, is perhaps one of the few recent films to comment on the state of British society in a technically audacious and ideologically stimulating way. As the 60s signalled a new era, Losey and Pinter illustrate how underneath the surface of this bright new world of hedonistic pleasures and sexual liberalism concealed a stifling vein of conservatism that continued aggressively to perpetuate class as an ideological certainty.

At the time of the film's release, Dirk Bogarde was one of Britain's most recognisable film stars whose image had been constructed around the series of 'Doctor in Trouble' films that had commercially successful on an international scale. It is well known now that Bogarde was a homosexual and it seems ironic today how his fan base was largely drawn from a chorus of middle class conservative housewives. Yet unlike other stars who repressed their sexuality for a long time from the glare of the media, Bogarde openly took on roles that were controversial, difficult, contradictory to his star image and most significantly, toyed with the most sacred of British taboos - sexuality. Warmly received by the critics, Bogarde's jittery performance as the manipulative Barrett who aims to question the class attitudes of those around him is also represented as somewhat of a victim of personal anxieties. Though the class struggle is depicted as an ideological battleground with Barrett and Tony uncomfortably switching roles towards the end of the film, it is clear that Barrett's existence in such a sterile society depends to a large extend upon the snobbery of men like Tony.

Many of the British films produced in the 60s which exploited the swinging London scene have lost their impact today and look respectively dated when compared to the savagery of a film like 'The Servant', a film that succeeded in borrowing the radicalism of the British new wave to criticise aspects of a society that continue to preoccupy some of the best British film makers working today; Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows. Class seems to to the one unifying and common principle upon which the voice of British cinema has been constructed and even though we refer to it as 'social realism', it is probably much more suggestive when you consider how all forms of realism including neo realism are fundamentally concerned with the problem of class struggle.

21 December 2008

DEATH RACE (Dir. Paul W S Anderson, 2008, US) - ‘Never a dull day...'

The British born film maker, Paul W S Anderson, (not to be confused with the high brow intellectualism of another Paul Anderson) has made a virtual career out of making ‘B’ movie genre films which are have the acquired the status of instantly disposable trashy cinema. ‘Death Race’ is representative of the 70s Grindhouse cinema that regularly exploited sex and violence to cater for a midnight niche audience who stalked the defunct inner city cinema venues like New York. Tarantino and Rodriquez love of exploitation movies was more than evident in their Grindhouse tribute; a double bill of films which seemed to disintegrate in the face of annoying self referencing and irritating homage. Now had QT and RR taken a step back from the directors chair and hired a unashamed master of exploitation like Paul W S Anderson then they may have had more luck in trying to capture the trashy, poverty row philosophies that made a director like John Carpenter into the cult figure he is today.

Interestingly enough when I think of exploitation films today, Roger Corman and John Carpenter are the two names that immediately come to the foreground, illustrating how both were essentially able to take the most outlandish of concepts and make them work for a mainstream audience. The key to Carpenter’s success was how unashamed he was about his approach to the most exploitative and trashiest of film genres; the horror film. Carpenter’s body of work still stands up to further scrutiny and analysis, but the same cannot be said for Paul W S Anderson. Yet ‘Death Race’ is one of the few Hollywood films in recent years that has managed to feel like an early 70s Carpenter film and also evoke the provocative spirit of exploitation cinema. There is nothing tasteful about ‘Death Race’, a film that is a remake of a Corman 70s classic, as it takes the idea of criminals racing cars in order to survive to see another day.

Anderson takes a sly dig at the barren state of the media by shooting the death race sequences as the ultimate reality TV show, referencing the super charged melodramatics of sports events and also paying tribute to the influence of video game imagery that is becoming more endemic to the visual style of film making today. His criticism does not stop quite there as Hennessey (Joan Allen), the prison warden, is represented as a shadowy reflection of the competitive television producer whose only concern is with maintaining consistently high ratings and ensuring the death race event is a commercially viable source of entertainment. Exploitation films tend to blur the boundaries between genres and such is the case with ‘Death Race’ as it uses the prison movie conventions as a means of creating some kind of crude sympathy for characters who are morally despicable monsters and sociopaths.

Jason Statham takes the main lead as Jensen Ames/Frankenstein and the superficially reductive stereotype of the British hard man gone off the rails is pretty similar to the ones he has played before in films like ‘Crank’ and ‘The Transporter’. Statham seems to have modelled himself on action heroes like Stallone, Van Damme and Michael Caine, yet even though his acting range severely limits his skills as an actor he still manages to make his characters very likable. Statham seems to have understood quite early in his career that minimal dialogue can actually be the saving grace of an actor who seems to be much more effective when passing glances, making grunts or staring manically at the camera. Such a strategy worked brilliantly for Schwarzenegger for years until some idiot though it would be a good idea for him to team up with the Danny De Vito and make the atrocious and unforgivable comedy, ‘Twins’. Another Brit, Ian McShane also makes an appearance as Coach, the trusty surrogate father figure, who spends most of his time at the sidelines egging on Jensen/Frank whilst pausing to deliver some of the dumbest one liners seen in a film since Bruckheimer gave up making the adult action film.

You know you are firmly in the land of exploitation cinema when a film reduces the only main black character down to the archetype of the violent, blood thirsty, gun tooting ‘sadist’ who spends much of his time cataloguing the men he has killed by scratching his cheekbones with a razor blade. Predictable, violent, trashy, and unashamedly exploitative, ‘Death Race’ should be considered brilliantly effective when positioned alongside the other disposable and escapist films Anderson has directed to date. Not quite the best of John Carpenter, but still much better than the uninspired exploitation cinema of both Tarantino and Rodriquez of late.

'NOT HERE TO BE LOVED' (Dir. Stephane Brize, 2005, France) - Life Lessons

Why is it that when two people falling in love in movies these days is represented in such a nauseating way it makes one want to collectively generalise all of the romantic comedies ever made especially those churned out by the likes of Judd Apatow and Richard Curtis into a special category reserved for sentimental porridge. Perhaps it is somewhat of a clique to say that French cinema continues to produce films about love in such a wonderfully light hearted and convincing manner but the influence of a film maker like Rohmer clearly resonates through the restrained direction of Stephane Brize. Many cine literate directors find it quite problematic to simply film the facts but Brize takes real pleasure in exploring what is a very simple and basic idea, avoiding complicated and ridiculous plot lines and contrivances which typically plague many Hollywood films about contemporary relationships. Casting is crucial here and much of the narrative is carried by the two central performances which are both nuanced and controlled. The ending cleverly acts as a comment on genre conventions, with Brize choosing to bring back together the confused lovers but whether or not this version of the truth is the right one is ambiguously depicted by adopting only one point of view; do they really end up together happily ever after or do they just accept their fear of wanting to be loved and remain trapped in their own mundane lives? A real gem of a movie and its a relief to come across a film that genuinely refuses to be condescending to its audience.

18 December 2008

'HUSBANDS' (Dir. John Cassavetes, 1970, US) - Improvisation in Independent American Cinema

Out of all the American independent film makers, Cassavetes is one of the most celebrated, acting as an inspiration for a generation of directors and helping to popularise techniques like improvisation for independent American cinema. Yet watching a Cassavetes is not as straight forward as has been suggested by critics especially when you consider how most of his oeuvre consists of films that are characterised by a series of unpredictable, episodic and schizophrenic narratives. 'Husbands' is one of the most demented films I have come across. When I say demented, I am referring to the openly random way that Cassavetes chooses to use narrative, opting to focus on the lives of three husbands played by Ben Gazzara, Cassavetes and Peter Falk. This is a film that celebrates performance and character over all other cinematic elements. Most of the film relies on daring improvisation generated between the three leads which at times makes what is happening on screen feel as though we are in fact watching the process of performance being enacted for us. Cassavetes wants us to see both the illusion of acting and the authenticity that can be achieved when actors are prepared to push the idea of improvisation to its very limits as illustrated in the self deprecating bar room sequence in which Gazzara, Cassavetes and Falk take it in turns to humiliate one another before a group of strangers. What prevents 'Husbands' from turning into a failed experiment is Cassavetes understated handling of the closing moments of the film. Upon returning to the relative banality of their suburban lifestyles, both Cassavetes and Falk are positioned as men who are 'trapped' and the only escape they have is each other, but even that is momentary and largely unsatisfactory. Ultimately, Cassavetes produces a devastating neo realist critique of middle class America and does so on his own uniquely uncompromising terms.

‘PERFORMANCE’ (Dir. Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg, 1970, UK) - 'Didn't I see you down in San Antone on a hot and dusty night?'

Released in 1970 and a partnership between perhaps two of the brightest and most original film directors to have emerged out of the British film industry, one cannot but help be struck by the unique position a film like ‘Performance’ occupies in film history, because nothing quite like it has been made since by a UK film maker and maybe never will. A collaboration between Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, ‘Performance’ has obvious gangster connotations especially in its referencing of East End crime traditions yet both Cammell and Roeg merely use the idea of a gangster hiding out in the Bohemian digs of a bored, self indulgent rock star (Mick Jagger) to bombard the spectator with an endless stream of drug induced kaleidoscopic imagery that is fashionably juxtaposed so that both time and space gradually cease to exist. It was a film way ahead of its time and even today ‘Performance’ seems completely post modern in its deliberate self reflexive allusions to Mick Jagger, a cultural icon of the 1960s counter culture movement and trend setter for the sexually liberated London scene. James Fox is a revelation as the cocky and over confident Chas and his final self destruction is mysteriously depicted through Roeg's much celebrated hedonistic but beautiful cinematography. A definitive British film, ‘Performance’ continues to be recognised by many as a masterpiece and no film director has quite used The Stones classic 'Memo from Turner' with such reverence and skill than Cammell & Roeg.

15 December 2008

'THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS' (Dir. David Gordon Green, 2008, US) - Getting stoned was never this cool, or was it?

Now that Judd Apatow has more or less conquered the box office and staked his claim to being crowned the most influential and original producer of the new Jackass style of comedy, he should take a hiatus so that audiences can learn to appreciate the films that have worked and the ones which have fallen to the wayside, joining the collective heap of misconceived concepts like the very unfunny 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall'. It is pretty obvious that Apatow is a genius when it comes to writing comedy and his scripts for 'Anchorman' and 'The 40 year old virgin' reveal a genuinely unique authorial presence that has helped spawn a generation of comedians and films. Many have argued that Apatow's influence and importance is so significant that he has in effect created a self contained industry of talent which continues to grow. Apatow is a real expert when it comes to dealing with contemporary male anxieties; most of these anxieties are related to a bemused refusal to grow up as expressed by his shallow, superficial, insecure but deeply sympathetic male characters who realise that the impossibilities of living in a postmodern society built on the power of self image is ultimately destructive to the traditional image of masculinity.

The collaboration between an indie film maker like David Gordon Green and an increasingly mainstream comic auteur seemed like the strangest of collaborations but one seems pretty sure that Apatow was impressed by Green's experience with comparatively low budgets, character driven scripts and an expressionistic concern for locations which he had shown in films like 'George Washington' and 'Undertow'. The stoner comedy is not a new genre; it has been around since the 60s and films like 'Cheech & Chong', 'Friday' and 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' proved that getting high could draw in an audience. The plot to 'The Pineapple Express' is fashionably Apatowesque in it absurdity and self referential acknowledgment of 70s TV cop shows, Saturday Night Live and late night straight to TV movies which are still played endlessly on cable.

Much of the humour is generated through the sending up of genre conventions which we are more than familiar with and the brilliantly improvised sequences between Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) and his drug dealer, Saul, (James Franco). Why is it that all Hollywood films seem to plagued with the problem of not knowing how and when to end a film? What ever happened to closure? Admittedly, the film loses it focus in the last third especially once the idea of absurdity and self parody reaches a point of frustration as the good guys and the bad guys shoot it out in a barn full of high grade marijuana. Nevertheless, this is one stoner comedy that is ridiculously funny in its depiction of male camaraderie, and has already been viewed as a real turning point in the career of James Franco who for a while seemed to have been crushed under the weight of the Spiderman franchise. One question though; getting stoned was never this cool, or was it?

'THE GOOD SHEPHERD' (Dir. Robert De Niro, 2007, US) - Power Corrupts

Any film that features a screenplay by Eric Roth is more than likely to feature an expertly crafted narrative structure and a succinct ear for dialogue that is usually a pleasure for A list actors to perform. Eric Roth is one of the finest scriptwriters Hollywood has produced and though he may not be as prolific as some of his contemporaries, his intelligently written and densely researched screenplays always seem to have the edge in terms of both authenticity and political relevance. Directed by Robert De Niro, 'The Good Shepherd' is a multi layered political drama and thriller that documents the origins and creation of the CIA as an international organisation involved in counter intelligence and the propagation of capitalist ideology. Though this a very stagy film and perhaps reveals De Niro's inexperience as a film maker, it is still a very finely constructed mainstream Hollywood film that explores a difficult subject matter in a critical way. Matt Damon is perfectly cast in the main lead as Edward Wilson, a senior CIA officer who is portrayed as both an absent father and unemotional husband. Supported by a stalwart of reputed character actors like Michael Gambon and Alec Baldwin, 'The Good Shepherd' has real difficulty making up its mind whether it wants to validate the CIA and US foreign policy or put forward the subversive suggestion that all institutional power including the government is naturally corrupt and regressive.

9 December 2008


2007 was a really tough when it came to compiling end of year lists and though I still have not managed to see films like ‘Hunger’, it was still difficult trying to draw up a list of favourite films for 2008, mainly because I tend not to go to the cinemas as often as I should and I am constantly either discovering or re discovering films on DVD. I feel it is really only fair that when magazines, journals and on line websites publish end of year lists they duly consider the parallel importance of a separate list that accounts for the incredibly vast DVD output.

Perhaps the fact that ‘There Will Be Blood’ having been released in January and at the beginning of this year has made it to the top of many UK critics list of top ten films is testament and proof that PTA has made his most memorable film to date. Though I don’t loathe film cannons as they can be important in helping to uncover forgotten films and directors, it seems somehow discriminatory that you are forced to overlook certain films purely because you are being asked to compile a list of merely ten films, a task which is a near impossibility considering how incredibly instantaneous the cinema experience has become.

What follows is a list of my top ten films of 2008 and ten other films which narrowly missed the mark by a whisker. Of course, that means this is not really a top ten list, but more of a top 20 list.

(Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007, US)

A Masterpiece. Tour De Force. Superlative. An Instant Classic. Radical. Marxist. Monstrous. A Film About America.

(Dir. Fatih Akin, 2007, Germany)

The multi narrative film finally comes of age. The film ‘Babel’ wanted to be. Fatih Akin is a real talent and one of the most emotionally powerful film makers working today. Beautifully edited. Trans-national cinema at its best.


(Dir. Matteo Garrone, 2008, Italy)

The rebirth of Italian Cinema.

(Dir. Tony Gilroy, 2007, US)

A throwback to the political conspiracy thrillers of the 70s and a fitting tribute to the generous producer collaboration between Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella. And of course George Clooney is frighteningly good.


A fine film with an Oscar winning performance by Brad Pitt. Much more than just a western.

(Dir. Paul Haggis, 2008, US)

Far superior to Haggis’ over rated racial essay ‘Crash’. Bombed at the box office. An enclosed, performance driven study of racism. Shades of ‘The Searchers’.


(Dir. Frank Darabont, 2007, US)

Perhaps the best statement yet on the rise of religious fanaticism in American society and around the world. Beautifully judged ending. Bleak but necessary.

(Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2007, Russia)

Deeply reminiscent of Tarkovsky but the imagery on display is pure Antonioni in its realisation. Confusing but beguiling cinema. A film that breathes.


(Dir. Lee Chang-dong, 2007, South Korea)

A real tearjerker and an emotional rollercoaster. The best female performance of the year.


(Dir. Jia Zhang-ke, 2006, China)

Proves that Asian cinema is still producing some of the finest film makers around.


(Dir. Jeff Nichols, 2007, US)

A terrific mood piece about gun culture and brothers.

(Dir. John Sayles, 2008, US)

Long live John Sayles; America’s finest film maker.

(Dir. George Romero, 2007, US)

Long live George Romero; America’s finest zombie film maker. At his satirical best.

(Dir. Ram Gopal Varma, 2008, India)

Operatic, gaudy, a sequel but what a performance from the maestro of Indian cinema; Amitabh Bhachan.


(Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008, US)

The blockbuster has never looked as beautiful and tragic as this since the 70s. Nolan rules.

16. WALL E

(Dir. Andrew Stanton, 2008, US)

Masterful and magical in every way.


(Dir. Johnnie To, 2007, Hong Kong)

Johnnie To is the last great Hong Kong auteur. Sublime genre film making. An extended tribute to the Hollywood musical.

(Dir. Rodrigo Pla, 2007, Mexico)

A terrifying companion piece to ‘Children of Men’.


(Dir. Paulo Sorrentino, 2008, Italy)

Sorrentino loves excess, but somehow he always makes us forgive the stylistic indulgences. Magnificent performance by Toni Servillo.


(Dir. Raj Kumar Gupta, 2008, India)

A terrible year for Indian cinema, but a very strong showing for UTV’s new production company ‘Spotboy’. Essential viewing in light of the problems plagued by international terrorism in India today.

7 December 2008

'LAKEVIEW TERRACE' (Dir. Neil La Bute, 2008, US) - Is this Hollywood's first unofficial response to the election of Obama?

It is finally safe to change the rhetoric that one uses from post 9-11 to post George Bush when contextualising mainstream Hollywood films dealing with particularly controversial social issues. Had Paul Haggis’ hugely influential multi narrative soap opera drama, ‘Crash’ been released in the new Obama reality then perhaps critics would have interpreted the racial conflict and tensions differently. Such is the case with a film like ‘Lakeview Terrace’, perhaps the first film to have been released by Hollywood in a context that has dramatically changed since Obama became the first African American president. So perhaps this may be the first response to the election of Obama. However much one wants to disassociate real politics from the real ideologies of ‘Lakeview Terrace’, it is still impossible to overlook the involvement of Will Smith as producer. Not only is Will Smith the biggest and most bankable contemporary Hollywood film star, his iconic status as an influential African American role model is undiminished and it is inevitable that he be compared to a figure like Obama.

Yet such a parallel and mirroring of images is manifested unquestionably in the racism of Abel Turner, a bigoted Los Angeles police officer, played with pure glee and malevolence by the imposing star power of Samuel L Jackson, who seems to embody all the nasty, territorial qualities of Republican conservatism. It is hard not see how the liberally inclined inter racial values of both Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa Mattson (Kerry Washington) seem to symbolise the spirit of a newly reconstructed form of democratic fervour sweeping through the nation. Their desire to settle down and become home owners in an area which they slowly find out is in fact a haven for paranoid, insular conservatives brings to the foreground the issue of racial identity in a world besieged by different kinds of social disparity. Neil La Bute’s study of middle American values in the milieu of suburbia is not uncommon in Hollywood films.

In the 1950s, a range of genres from science fiction to melodrama used the banal setting of suburbia to critique the increasingly conformist attitudes of middle class America. Suburbia came about as a conservative reaction to the influx of black people from the rural areas of the South and into the urban, inner cities. Described by some as the ‘white flight’, high numbers of affluent white families who had traditionally lived in the city migrated to suburbia, and subsequently reinforced the deep segregation that already existed in many parts of America. Another possible explanation for the rapid emergence of suburbia as a place of Utopian, idyllic values was due to the fears of both a communist invasion and an impending nuclear strike which Americans had been told would occur in major urban areas like key cities rather than the obscurity of suburbia. The sexual politics of the 70s seemed to culminate in John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, a film that represented the most puritanical of sub-genres; the Slasher film. Opening with a devastating sequence of a young boy butchering to death his sister, Halloween not only signalled the demise of the sexual revolution, it suggested that the teenager was no longer safe in the domesticated environment of suburbia. Such a theme of teen angst was turned on its head by David Lynch in the 80s with ‘Blue Velvet’, a film that represented one of the darkest and most disturbing images of suburban ideology. The 90s saw indie film makers like Richard Linklater’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ and Richard Kelly’s ‘Donnie Darko’ reconfigure the image of suburbia as a place for nostalgic teenage anxieties and hedonistic celebrations. Released in 1999, Alan Ball’s subversive and dark take on suburban values, ‘American Beauty’, seemed to be a culmination of an on going Hollywood fascination with family, masculinity and moral bankruptcy in the age of neo liberalism.

In ‘Lakeview Terrace’, Abel Turner, a troubled and bigoted cop, terrorises his neighbours in an attempt to exorcise the death of his wife. Aside from some terrifyingly blunt sequences involving Abel and Chris that underline the racial complexity of today’s American society, the film gradually and perhaps predictably disintegrates into another formulaic thriller. Wholly unnecessary plot contrivances involving a mobile phone and a redundant shoot out at the end carries with it the studio stamp of approval in terms of adequate closure. Nevertheless, had genre constraints not got in the way of characterisation, ‘Lakeview Terrace’ would have been an exceptionally brilliant racial drama, but however, as a star vehicle tailor made for Samuel L Jackson it works just as well.