30 April 2009

CHE: PART 2 - GUERRILLA (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008, US) - 'To survive here, to win...you have to live as if you've already died'

Benicio Del Toro as Ernesto 'Che' Guevara

The second part of Soderbergh and Del Toro’s Che biopic opens with a close up of a 1960s television set with the black and white images of Fidel Castro delivering a speech regarding a letter he has received from his friend and comrade, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, reassuring the Cuban nation of the revolutionary’s relative safety. Not only is it a visual reminder of the postmodern tele-visual age that much of the western world was entering and how nationhood was becoming manifested through alternative institutional modes of address, it also provides a crucial link between the two films in demonstrating how Che’s journey would shift emphasis from the euphoria of Cuba to the jungles of Bolivia. Shot using the new ultra light RED camera in a similarly cinema verite fashion to Soderbergh’s ‘The Argentine’, the second part titled ‘Guerrilla’ focuses squarely on Che’s failed attempts to begin a revolution in Bolivia, leading to his humiliating capture and brutal execution by the Bolivian army. The sociological strength and truthfulness of ‘Guerrilla’ as formidable political cinema certainly affirms Soderbergh’s superlative position alongside Paul Thomas Anderson and Terence Malick as one of the most versatile and technologically adept American film makers working today. ‘Guerrilla’ is arguably Soderbergh’s finest cinematic achievement to date, eclipsing ‘The Argentine’ with an equally powerful elliptical approach and creating a cogent study of a political leader who became a victim of his own radicalism and ideological integrity.

Currently, the cumulative worldwide gross for Soderbergh’s diptych stands at $30 million which is disappointing considering the film cost $60 million to make. However, the film does have a chance of turning a profit once it appears on DVD and this is likely where it will potentially find its biggest audience. After the triumph of Marxist revolution in Cuba and the end of Batista’s regime, Che was declared a national hero but his revolutionary instincts compelled him to travel and propagate his ideals in Congo and finally Bolivia. Upon his arrival in Bolivia, Che immediately succeeded in creating a Partisan Army made up of indigenous volunteers and Cuban revolutionaries. Acting as leader, Che oversaw the training and education of the soldiers, helping to transform them into a formidable guerrilla army, which put up great resistance to the CIA backed Bolivian Army. Che’s aim was to use the revolutionary war to motivate the peasants and create some kind of a popular uprising but such political idealism was undermined by the widespread suspicion aroused by their presence of a foreign army. Many of the Bolivian peasants who form a large part of the underclass question Che’s intentions are shown to be taken in by the lies propagated by the local police and military who resort to threats of intimidation and violence.

Steven Soderbergh also takes credit for the cinematography under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews.

What this second part makes much more explicit than the first is the direct American involvement in the political affairs of Latin American countries like Bolivia, assisting with the military training of the Bolivian army so that they can stop short any idea of a revolutionary impulse taking hold of the peasants. The CIA’s role in the capture and execution of Che is explored with great subtlety through the character of Ramirez (Yul Vasquez) who hovers in the background as a symbol of corruption and conspiracy. The ideological debate that forms much of the exchanges between the revolutionaries in particular examines with great clarity the painful compromises one must make in order to live up to the principles of socialists who want the eradication of such deep man made inequalities. ‘Guerrilla’ ends brilliantly, poignantly capturing the execution and state sanctioned murder of Che as one of understated historical significance and the performance by Benicio Del Toro is undoubtedly one of the great method performances of the last 20 years.

29 April 2009

GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (Dir. Mamoru Oshii, 2004, Japan) - 'The less one forgets, the less one can remember...'

Do all cinematic science fiction roads lead back to Blade Runner? In the DVD extras to Mamoru Oshii’s incredibly beautiful and cerebral Japanese sci fi anime, ‘Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence’, the film maker acknowledges the debt one must continue to pay to the influential milestone that is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Innocence was the follow up to Oshii’s landmark cyberpunk anime, Ghost in the Shell, which was released in 1995 to critical acclaim and commercial success. Like Otomo’s Akira, it would go on to influence countless science fiction films including the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy. Unfortunately I have still not managed to see the first film but was eager to watch Innocence, having been told that it may just be the most aesthetically pleasing anime film ever made. I can’t comment on the first film nor can I offer any analysis in terms of continuing themes, motifs or visual style, but I am pretty sure from all the interviews I have come across with Oshii, he makes numerous references to the explicit relationship that exists between the two films.

The story of Innocence bears a striking resemblance to that of Blade Runner. Special agent Batou who along with his equally downbeat partner are given the assignment of investigating a series of robot crimes involving gynoids (living dolls). The plot itself is very complicated and I'm not sure if Oshii is too concerned with constructing an appealing narrative. What Oshii's cinematic approach boils down to is an obsessive concern for the aesthetics and the visual representation of a dystopian future in which the line between man and machine is almost unrecognisable. One of the most memorable sequences takes place at night in a neonesque grocery store when Batou is confronted by what appears to be a manifestation of his personal anxieties. The future world Oshii depicts is a stunning architectural amalgamation of the dense, urbanised landscapes of dystopian science films like Godard's Alphaville and Lang's Metropolis. The allusions and references to the genre are intelligently constructed and Oshii's control over the textures and colours of the film reminded me of the importance of his contribution to the technological evolution of Japanese anime:

'It was Oshii, in the first Ghost in the Shell, who began anime's migration into a digital world, scanning images into a computer instead of photographing them. His decision allowed him to experiment, altering colours and backgrounds, and adding effects that made his animation seem more real. Without Ghost in the Shell, there would be no Steamboy, no Appleseed, no Spirited Away. Oshii's movie forms the vital link between the art of cel animation and the craft of CGI'

- Living Dolls, Jonathan Clements, 2005, Innocence DVD sleeve notes

Innocence is one of the best examples of the anime genre I have come across to date but it never shies away from saying that anime films can be as sophisticated, if not more so, than their Hollywood science fiction counterparts. Oshii creates an affecting and powerful title sequence, making haunting use of Japanese composer Kenji Kawai's original score:

26 April 2009

ANURADHA (Dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1960, India) - Feminine anxieties

Balraj Sahni as Dr. Nirmal Chowdhary and Leela Naidu as Anuradha Roy

Hrishikesh Mukherjee is often referred to as one of the forgotten film directors of Indian cinema. Admittedly, much of his work has been overlooked for reasons largely to do with an indistinct directorial style and the middle class sensibilities of his protagonists. The fact that Hrishikesh Mukherjee was a Bengali film maker and not an Indian one seems to provide one of the clearest explanations for his rejection of becoming accepted and positioned in the context of mainstream cinema. Though he did work with many of the A list film stars, his unpretentious approach to film making was nurtured by his formative years as an editor and assistant director with the talented neo realist director, Bimal Roy. This early experience with realism and the ideological imperative of socialism did leave an influence on Hrishikesh Mukherjee but he chose rather to focus on middle class stories and popular genres. Today, his name is often associated with that of Amitabh Bachchan.

Writer, Susmita Dasgupta, in her fascinating study of superstar Amitabh Bachchan comments eloquently on the importance of the director/actor relationship between Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Bachchan in helping to construct a consistent star image:

‘If we observe Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films with Amitabh Bachchan, we realise that he was one director who, in the course of his eight films with the star, actually exhausted the full pantheon of Amitabh’s histrionic abilities. Neither Manmohan Desai nor Prakash Mehra nor Yash Chopra gave as many facets of the star as he did. He understood Amitabh very well and responded both to his innate ability to project tragedy and his potential for comedy’

Amitabh: The Making of a Superstar, Susmita Dasgupta, 2006, Penguin, pg 47

Anuradha is quickly taken in by Dr. Nirmal's many romantic advances

Amitabh Bachchan did some of his best work with Hrishikesh Mukherjee but they also seemed to exhaust the creative possibilities of their cinematic relationship very quickly whilst Bachchan’s superstar status started to cloud his artistic judgements. In the midst of his more popular films like ‘Anand’ and ‘Chupke Chupke’, Hrishikesh Mukherjee directed a number of understated melodramas beginning with ‘Anuradha’ at the start of his career in 1960. Coming at the end of the 60s, it would be safe to position this film alongside the work of Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt. In the film, Balraj Sahni, whom Hrishikesh Mukherjee had worked with on ‘Do Bigha Zamin’, plays an aspiring doctor, helping the dispossessed and poor in a rural village. He is joined by his wife, Anuradha Roy (Leela Naidu) who is forced to make a painful sacrifice by choosing to surrender her artistic ambitions as a talented radio artist so that she can support her husband’s idealistic desires.

Structured through a series of flashbacks and recollected by the memories of a lonely Anuradha, the film shows a sympathetic concern for feminine anxieties and aspirations. Though the character of Dr. Nirmal acts as the most visible link to neo realism, it is the character of Anuradha who becomes the focus of the narrative, representing a familiar brand of stoic femininity immortalised in such films as Mehboob Khan’s ‘Mother India’. Unlike the patriarchal values of Hollywood cinema, Indian film makers working under the studio system regularly sought to uncover a heroic struggle within matriarchal ideology. The mother figure continues to act as a symbol of Indian nationhood; silent, hardworking and traditionally dutiful yet prepared to sacrifice absolutely everything to survive. However, the melodrama genre has always accommodated the voice of women more strongly than that of traditionally male dominated genres and therefore it is of little wonder that Mukherjee explores with great humanism and intelligence, the high price a woman must pay so that Indian society could continue to progress in an era when rapid educational and medical programmes were slowly being implemented by the secularism of a Nehruite government.

Compared to his contemporaries, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s popularity as a film maker seemed to peak with that of Amitabh yet his films dealt with middle class concerns that predate the parallel movement that would emerge in the early 1980s. The films Amitabh Bachchan made with Hrishikesh Mukherjee were the antithesis of the overblown multi starer of the 70s. I think this is where his true strength lay; he never allowed any of his actors to overshadow the material with their star presence. Stardom was an aspect of film making that he criticised and this perhaps explains why he was so successful in extracting some of the best work from the biggest Indian film stars.

Another in a long line of brilliant performances by one of Indian cinema's greatest actors

Unlike today, the film makers who forged auteur careers under the studio system like Hrishikesh Mukherjee were masters at being able to subtly integrate song and dance sequences into the overall narrative, without shifting focus away from the important social message. At the end, Anuradha’s endless sacrifices for her husband’s medical career and inherent desire to help the impoverished transforms from something personal into a microcosm of Indian motherhood and female resilience that often goes unacknowledged.

25 April 2009

WEEKEND - (Dir. Jean Luc Godard, 1967, France) - 'From French revolutions to Gaullist weekends, freedom is violence'

I’m not sure if there is a definitive Godard film. He made so many uncompromising and radical films that the term masterpiece seems inadequate to associate with a cinema that rejected such superficial ways of canonising films. Made a year before the student protest movement and the tumultuous events of 68, Godard’s zeitgeist polemic on the banality of bourgeoisie French society can never really date or lose any of its political force as long as much of the West continues to depend upon the inequalities of the class system as a means of ensuring that hegemony prevails. Alongside ‘La Chinoise’ and ‘Tout Va Bien’, ‘Weekend’ is one of the most sophisticated of the films Godard directed in the 1960s. The plot is non existent and difficult to recall so I’m not going to even try providing some kind of synopsis. This is cinema about political agitation and the deconstructive approach Godard implements through what is a starkly elliptical narrative demands that we engage with the political ideas in a way which makes us question the illusionary and beguiling nature of traditional mainstream cinema. A violence emerges out of the disconnected shots and daring use of the frame, a frame that is disruptive in how it refuses to allow us to gain any kind of spectator control. Political slogans are juxtaposed to the appearance of beatnik revolutionary characters who offer a kind of sustained political commentary on the sickness of bourgeoisie values.

Some film academics have argued that ‘Weekend’ was the last film Godard directed before he shifted into his more politically experimental phase with the formation of the Dziga Vertov Group in 1968, yet his flirtations with Marxist ideology had already emerged in a film like ‘La Chinoise’. ‘Weekend’ also seems to be a creative summation of Godard’s achievements up to that point in his career, having worked prolifically since 1959, developing a discernible cinematic style that argued for the creation of a new self reflexive language with which to speak to audiences about the state of things. It might be a strikingly obvious point to make even today but Godard truly did evolve as a film maker with each film, questioning and even rejecting earlier films for reasons to do with political acquiescence. Such self awareness naturally set him apart from the French new wave and his distrust of sentimentality as a cinematic reflex meant that his Marxist leanings echoed the failed attempts within French society to attack traditional moral forces like the bourgeoisie. Prior to the events of May 1968, much of Godard’s work responded to the anxieties and aspirations for deep social change within a Gaullist French society and the jarring antics of ‘Weekend’ acts as a challenging historical document. However, much one would like to label this as cinematic, Godard’s daring break from the unwritten rules of film making has more in common with the political writings of radical thinkers like Marx, Engels and Sartre. This is one of the few films that does embody the spirit and idea of cultural revolution.

22 April 2009

IN THE LOOP (Dir. Armando Iannucci, 2009, UK)

Not many have had the courage to say something worthwhile about the criminality of Tony Blair and his New Labour project’s feeble and outlandish attempts to sell an empty, meaningless war to the politically apathetic British public. It’s not surprising that comedy and in this case British political satire would act as a suitable conduit for channelling the frustrations, fears and realities of how the elite nations like Britain and American ultimately collude to protect their interests by fabricating and manipulating absent political pretexts. Armando Iannucci’s directorial debut premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and for a film like ‘In the Loop’, it struck a nervous chord with audiences who were still suffering from a post George Bush hangover. Iannucci continues to be one of Britain’s strangest yet most brilliant writers of television comedy and his blistering political series, ‘The Thick of It’, probed the psyche of media manipulation, spin doctors and ministerial faux paux with a chilling clarity. The lynchpin of the series was ‘Malcolm Tucker’, a hideously monstrous political creation and a thinly veiled mirror image of Alistair Campbell, who uses his status as director of communications for Downing Street and New Labour to annihilate the political opposition and consistently humiliate the dullards who regularly fail to competently fulfil their ministerial duties.

The run up to the invasion of an unnamed Middle Eastern country (obviously Iraq) shows the British government pandering to the national interests of America. Though Iannucci takes a swipe at everyone, the special and cosy relationship between the British and American governments is represented as one fraught with unbearable contempt and built on a pack of lies. The showdown at the UN which makes war inevitable, Malcolm Tucker is shown faking the intelligence by sexing up a dossier and handing it to the American’s as a sign of the British government’s support for the war. It is a hilariously constructed sequence that achieves a nausea inducing reaction within the audience for its nightmarish political honesty. This is a very brave film and perhaps one of the first British films that have been made which are not afraid of scrutinising the legacy of Tony Blair and the lasting impact that his New Labour politics has had upon the psyche of what is a very disillusioned British electorate. ‘In the Loop’ is brilliant, relevant and, as equally funny as Kubrick’s 1964 cold war masterpiece; ‘Dr. Strangelove’.

19 April 2009

FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN (Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel, UK, 2009)

James Nesbitt as Joe Griffin and Liam Nesson as Alistair Little

Having been effectively kicked off his first Hollywood film, German film maker Oliver Hirschbiegel, makes an impressive return to form with this Northern Ireland based drama 'Five Minutes of Heaven'. Achieving international success with ‘Downfall’ and ‘The Experiment’, Hirschbiegel’s credentials as an emerging world cinema talent quickly attracted the attention or should I say scorn of Hollywood. Hirschbiegel was hired to direct a summer science fiction film, ‘The Invasion’; a contemporary updating of Jack Finney’s allegorical novel which had famously been used as a basis for Don Siegel’s 1954 science fiction classic, ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. With a hefty $65 million budget and A list cast including Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, producer Joel Silver was unimpressed by Hirschbiegel’s finished film. Having removed him from the project, they brought in 'V for Vendetta' director, James McTiegue to complete extensive re shoots which cost up to $10 million. Though Hirschbiegel retained final credit as sole director of the film and having not disowned the film publicly, he may seriously reconsider working with a major Hollywood studio again. A similarly negative and compromised creative experience also marred the Hollywood debut of another flamboyant European visual stylist, Jean Pierre Jenuet, who after the debacle of ‘Alien Resurrection’ bounced back critically with ‘Amelie’, the biggest film of his career to date.

By returning to the familiar territory of social conflict, Hirschbiegel tackles the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ by juxtaposing the crimes of the past with today’s pursuit for truth and reconciliation. Commissioned by BBC4, this a co-production of a number of small production outfits including the BBC and though it was first shown to critical acclaim at the Sundance film festival, it had its UK premiere on BBC2 in the Easter scheduling. The film has been picked up by Pathe and will receive an international release. ‘Bloody Sunday’, directed by Paul Greengrass and also starring James Nesbitt, was another Northern Ireland based TV drama that attracted acclaim at various film festivals and was eventually given a limited international release.

I’m not sure if ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ has the cinematic scope of a film like ‘Bloody Sunday’ but the presence of an auteur like Hirschbiegel and the current box office pulling power of Liam Nesson (‘Taken’ has been a sleeper hit internationally) seems to make perfect commercial sense for Pathe. When he wants to, Nesson can be a very powerful actor and his performance as the real life guilt ridden Alistair Little, a member of the protestant UDF (Ulster Volunteer Force) who at the age of 17 murdered James Griffin (Catholic) in retaliation for the murder of his father by the IRA is a notable reminder of his versatility. Nesson is rightfully compared to Robert Mitchum in that his on screen presence is largely achieved through a stoic, physical dominance in which his body argues for a traditional male identity, one based on intimidation and charisma. However, the same can't be said of Nesbitt's miscasting in the role of Joe Griffin who witnesses the cold blooded brother of his brother and is asked by a TV company to participate in a recording of a truth and reconciliation meeting between him and Little.

Most films made about the Northern Ireland conflict tend to focus on historical events and usually offer an ideological debate from the past but Guy Hibert, the writer behind Omagh, partially succeeds in offering a different political slant by attempting to position the conflict between perpetrator and victim in a contemporary post Blair context. The concern for realism is quite typical of the BBC's commitment to quality television drama and its liberal agenda comes through strongly in the film's attempt to advocate a message of understanding and tolerance for the crimes of a past mired in sectarian conflict and generational hatred. What this film proves is that Hollywood rarely allow film makers who want to make films on their own terms to flourish and it is safe to say that Hirschbiegel works better when left alone.

16 April 2009

PREDATOR (Dir. John McTiernan, 1987, US) - 'If it bleeds, we can kill it...'

Carl Weathers as Dillon and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dutch

Some films become imprisoned with our own cinematic memories, many of those from my childhood seem quite fuzzy today. It's easy to grow nostalgic about certain films regardless of how good or bad those films actually are. 'Predator', a 1980s sci fi action blockbuster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of those guilty cinematic pleasures that I must have seen at least five or six times on VHS before I suddenly hit upon Alex Cox on BBC2 with his brilliant 'Moviedrome' show in which he would regularly choose to screen cult classics like Leone's 'The Good, The bad and The Ugly'. The show was later revived under another brilliant film critic and writer, Mark Cousins, who screened equally powerful cinema; 'La Haine', 'Scarface' and 'Cyclo'. Before the advent of the Internet and DVD, you really had to seek out and track down VHS copies of classic films (or reserve one) but that was part of the pleasure of release dates particularly the ones advertised at the local VHS rental shop. I didn't actually watch 'Predator' in the cinema as it carried an 18 certificate but had to wait until it surfaced on VHS, which it did, with nearly thirty minutes of trailers! Today, 'Predator' is grouped together under the hard body cycle of action films like 'Commando', 'Raw Deal', 'Total Recall', 'First Blood' and 'The Terminator'.

A blu ray release of the film and the absence of Schwarzenegger from the genre made me want to revisit and examine what exactly made this film appeal so strongly to me. Produced by Joel Silver, released in 1987 and directed by John McTiernan (the first postmodern action genre auteur?), 'Predator' was commercially successful at the box office. It was also another star vehicle for Schwarzenegger who apparently (read the wikipedia entry for the film; full of trivia and production details) had the original script rewritten so it could accommodate his idea of a group of commandos ('The Magnificent Seven' is cited as a key influence) being dispatched to the jungle rather than just being a story about an alien and superhuman individual. Watching 'Predator' today, it's hard not to comment on the gratuitous level of violence, an aspect of the action film that has been toned today to meet the demands of the 12A generation of cinema goers. In the 1980s, the graphic representation of violence seemed to come most fervently from the most unlikely of genres; sci fi action hybrid, and 'The Terminator' and 'Robocop' illustrate this preoccupation with violence quite well. However, the graphic violence is necessary in establishing the equally ruthless nature of both man and alien.

Interestingly, in the final act, Dutch (Schwarzenegger) is forced to dispense with his fancy military hardware (Reaganite metaphors appear prolifically in the film's narrative) and utilise nature to overcome the guerrilla techniques of the alien predator. Though this maybe seem like an allegorical rejection of Reaganite militarism, it also seems to underline how masculinity back in the 1980s era was inextricably tied up with a primitiveness which placed emphasis on brute force rather than the technological adeptness of today's super cool action heroes, many of which seem unconcerned about their physical appearance. 'Predator' shares a fetish with the military along with another significant action film of the 80s, which of course is none other than 'Aliens', directed by James Cameron who had first rose to prominence in Hollywood with 'The Terminator'. The political angle the film takes is also in line with cold war action films like 'Rambo'. The character of Dutch later discovers he has been manipulated by his friend and war buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers) to prevent a communist backed guerrilla army from invading an unnamed third world country (somewhere in Latin America). This reflects the numerous wars by proxy that were secretly sanctioned by Reagan's hard line Republican administration of which Schwarzenegger was openly supportive. The fact that the Americans stop this invasion or pre-emptive strike reeks of interventionism but ultimately the politics imitates the bare faced fantasy wish fulfillment of films like 'Rambo II' which also used the symbolism of the military male body to act as a metaphor for undiminished American hegemony. As 'Predator' can be positioned as a science fiction film, the figure of the alien predator can be viewed as the traditional 'other', standing in for concerns and fears to do with communism, terrorism, the affects of the Vietnam war and perhaps even wider racial anxieties.

Crudely underwritten characters means that the men that form part of the specially assembled military unit are overly familiar archetypes. Bill Duke comes worse off in this case as Mac, the token black guy who gets the disparaging job of uttering many of the film's most unmemorable lines. The visceral and fast paced action sequences are well choreographed even by today's Bournesque standards and though it is painfully obvious to spot the Arnie stunt double, the cat and mouse dynamics help sustain dramatic tension throughout what is a taut narrative. Alongside 'The Terminator' and 'Total Recall', the film features one of Schwarzenegger's best performances. For all his limitations as an actor, in the role of Dutch, he is effectively able to convey a mixture of anger at being betrayed and a fearlessness to the threat posed by the time traveling alien predator.

John McTiernan has had an uneven mainstream film career and he arguably produced his best work in the 80s and 90s, directing what are considered some of the strongest examples of the action genre to date with films like 'Die Hard' and 'The Last Action Hero'. Unfortunately, McTiernan's personal life has had somewhat of an impact on his career which is a real shame considering he has a brilliant capacity to tell a convincing story in the trappings of what is regarded as a genre simply subservient to an idea or series of expensive set pieces. I hope he can one day get his career back on track but at the moment films like 'Predator' seem to underline his talents as a more than competent mainstream genre film maker. I think it's also wise to simplify 'Predator' down to what is really is; a good old fashioned chase movie. It's not as good as I remembered it to be but it does have one thing going for it which many films don't have today; classic one liners delivered by the man himself: 'Stick around!'

The following documentary provides a detailed insight into the making of the film:

13 April 2009

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN / Låt den rätte komma in (Dir. Tomas Alfredson, 2008, Sweden) - 'You have to invite me in...'

The director, Tomas Alfredson, spent a year casting the two child leads in the role of Eli and Oskar.

[Apologises; spoilers ahead]

Once in a while a film comes along that renews your faith in contemporary cinema. It’s not surprising that the film in question is an example of superlative world cinema film making as Hollywood and American cinema continue to look outwards not for inspiration but to see how best they can re-appropriate emerging styles and aesthetics in hope of satisfying the never ending thirst for commercial exploitation. Swedish film maker, Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Let the Right One In’ is cinema that never falters or stutters in its mesmerising control over the language of film. Anything remotely brilliant or which has the potential of being transformed into the next in house franchise seems to be an easy target for the Hollywood studios. Hollywood have already pounced on the rights to remake Alfredson’s masterpiece of disquiet yet why do film makers and producers continue to allow this to happen when the reality is that only a handful of films have really ever measured up in any way to the original.

In his article for the latest issue of the Sight and Sound film journal, UK film critic Mark Kermode, an articulate authority on the horror genre, remarked on the film’s problematic genre status:

‘Despite the laudatory labels that have been attached to it, Let the Right One In falls into that category of truly great movies which are best defined not by what they are, but by what they are not’

‘It is what it’s not’ – Mark Kermode, Sight and Sound, May 2009

This is quite true as to simply interpret the film as a vampire film overlooks the moving allegorical readings of the relationship between 12 year old Oskar (Kare Hedebrandt) and Eli (Lina Leandersson) a mysterious girl he befriends who lives in the same apartment block. Like most genres, the vampire film continues to offer the chance to explore contemporary anxieties and fears, many of which have tended to be socially and politically relevant. One of the most complex and ideologically significant readings of the vampire myth is the one that has readily equated it with capitalism:

In Capital Marx comments that 'capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour'.

[Marxism] Vampire capitalism, Sat, 22 Apr 2006, By Mark Neocleous

Gus Van Sant's 'Elephant' comes to mind when we see Oskar at school

Though it would be difficult to see how this perspective fits in with the film, it does stress how vampires have always been in some way related to the changing social milieu and that for the myth to exist and really affect the imagination, a crisis of some kind facing society is altogether more helpful in acting as a catalyst for the notion of immortality. Alfredson deliberately sets in the film in the context of a depressive 80s, a time in which Sweden was experiencing urban deprivation and unemployment. Interestingly, the class divide in most European countries has never been greater and with the current economic crisis, the concrete milieu of Blackeberg doesn’t seem too far removed from our own dystopian reality. The film works on multiple genre levels; coming of age, social realism, vampire film, and the delicacy with which Alfredson depicts the relationship between Oskar and Eli gives it an unrivalled level of genuine sympathy from the spectator.

Personally, it’s hard not to see how Alfredson uses the conventionality of the vampire genre as a vehicle for allegorically exploring the issue of poverty. The reviews I have come across so far have failed to pick up on this point but I am guessing the emptiness that follows the character of Eli, something that is effectively conveyed through the demoralised apartment in which she lives, can also be viewed as a kind of self imposed poverty. Though she is a vampire, this complicates the tender relationship she has with whom we assume is her father. Their otherness means they are never considered to be part of normal society and once again, as Eli is a vampire, it is easy to account for the absence of material goods in her life; the truth that all she ultimately needs is blood to remain functional does not go unchallenged in what is a tightly paced narrative that never feels the need to signpost the more horrific elements of a film which has been seen as the antithesis of the genre. Everything to them is simply pointless except of course friendship which Eli and Oskar come to value as much more profoundly valuable than even mainstream conformity. Eli’s outsider status is what first attracts Oskar to her benign nature but ironically, for all the poverty that he witnesses, he is in awe of the reliance with which she defends her existence in the world and such an ideological imperative of adolescent resistance empowers Oskar to face his tormentors.

The only honest relationship in the film exists between two children

Thematically, violence as self defence is justified in the realm of high school bullying and Alfredson’s austere and at times chillingly sterile depiction of the educational establishment eerily references the rigid formal style of Gus Van Sant’s masterful ‘Elephant’. Like all great films with children at the focus of the narrative, ‘Let the Right One In’ continues the endearing yet realistic tradition of depicting the adults as suspicious, unreliable and incapable of providing comfort or defence for those in need of help. One of the most striking aesthetic details of the film is Alfredson’s beautifully, balanced compositions, with many of the shots striving to emphasise the landscapes of Blackeberg as somewhat threatening, hostile and strangely nostalgic. As this is a reality viewed through the eyes of two ghostly children, much of the haunting imagery is stunningly photographed against the backdrop of a wintry landscape. Not since The Coens with 'Fargo' has snow been used to such unsettling effect and its presence within the film offers a wider metaphor for the paralysis of Oskar.

The pains of adolescence; alienation plays a key theme in the film

The director has said in many of his interviews that he sees the ending to the film as a happy one. Though the final actions of Eli results in a macabre yet necessary act of salvation, the uncharacteristic idea of escape is what makes the film most disturbing because the ones escaping are children. In many ways, this is the right ending and the note it strikes at the end is a deeply satisfying one as it confirms the confidence of what is near perfection in terms of film making. I'm not so sure if Hollywood will naturally inherit the confidence of Alfredson's ending as unfortunately it is not motivated by multiplex mathematics.

The Internet Movie Database cites the film as having won 43 awards (yes, of course, not all of them hold any real significance) which is extraordinary and illustrates how a middle of the road Swedish vampire film has endeared itself to film critics and many notable web bloggers. It is satisfying to see that such a remarkable film didn’t just fade away into obscurity. I have had real difficulty trying to to find about the film's budget but the the director Tomas Alfredson has said that the film's budget was relatively large when compared to the budgets attracted by typical mainstream films in Sweden. So far the worldwide gross for the film is around $7 million (see box office mojo for further details) but this does not account for the money it will hopefully make in the UK, if it does as well as expected. It certainly has been received well in the UK and it stands an excellent chance of attracting an unusually wide audience as the film has managed to find its way into multiplexes (Cineworld), primarily because of the positive word of mouth (think Donnie Darko) and the film’s commercially attractive genre allusions.

On a final note, the poster art for the film has also been a key influence in marketing the film. The UK film poster on the left is much more enigmatic than the original poster used to promote the film in Sweden. Though I prefer the UK version for its minimalist and haunting imagery, the Swedish poster is much more graphic and disturbing, but more importantly the iconic image of Oskar at his apartment window is really what the film is about; the fear of loneliness, which just happens to be the oldest vampire anxiety of all.

UK film critic, Mark Kermode reviews the film as a video blog:

12 April 2009

LUCK BY CHANCE (Dir. Zoya Akhtar, 2009, India)

Pretentious is not the word to describe this latest directorial debut from yet another new supposedly talented Bollywood film maker. Most of today’s Bollywood stars and emerging directors have suddenly appeared from behind the powerful influence of their parents to make woeful contributions to Indian cinema. This continuing outbreak of nepotism has seen the children of Bollywood’s most celebrated film lyricist, Javed Akhtar, enter the industry with a supposedly knowledgeable and radical approach to mainstream cinema but their desire to be seen as a new wave has been blighted by a self obsessed and annoying cinematic style that cannibalizes their own cinematic memories with no real connection with the everyday youth of India today. Son of Javed Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar made his directorial debut with ‘Dil Chatha Hai’ in 1999, scoring an unexpected commercial success. Although the film tried to define itself as somewhat of a non traditional Bollywood film, it could not help but reinforce many of the bombastic cliques and conventions that haunt much of cinema made even today. Farhan Akhtar followed up the success of his debut film with a collaboration with Hirthik Roshan titled ‘Lakshya’, another film that promised much but sank beneath the jingoism of yet more nationalist ideology. Lately, Farhan has transformed himself into the most unlikely of television hosts, presenting his own TV show.

‘Luck by Chance’ is the directorial debut of Farhan’s sister and Javed’s daughter, Zoya Akhtar, who had previously collaborated with her brother on the script for Gurinder Chadha’s Jane Austen update of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ironically titled ‘Bride and Prejudice’. I didn’t warm very much at all to Chadha’s diversion into Bollywood and this film strikes a similarly pretentious tone throughout. The film is about an aspiring actor played by Farhan Akhtar who wants to break into the film industry but on his way encounters a number of eccentric and larger than life characters who represent the different facets of what is a very closed institution. Apart from a series of wonderfully executed opening titles which visits the varying extremes of Bollywood land, the film suffers from unsympathetic characters and a predictable narrative that uses the conventional song and dance sequences. ‘Luck by Chance’ heralds nothing new and fails to generate any kind of sustained interest in what could have potentially been a chance to provide an insider’s point of view of Bollywood. Nevertheless, the film might have you hanging around simply to spot the countless cameos made by the elite of Bollywood.

11 April 2009

TYSON (Dir. James Toback, 2008, US)

Partly financed by American indie film maker James Toback and executive produced by Mike Tyson, this new documentary on the controversial sporting icon has already been criticised for its inherent bias openly shown by those involved with the production. Premiering at Cannes last year, James Toback’s personal examination of Mike Tyson’s career from his poverty stricken beginnings to his dramatic collapse as a formidable force within the boxing world is structured around a series of intimate and deeply revealing confessions rather than interviews. The absence of Toback and the direct audience address by simply having Tyson speak in his own inarticulate words creates a very surreal atmosphere but the sensible rejection of pretentious documentary tropes helps to sustain a simplicity that fills the frame with Tyson’s unmistakably bullish figure. The real fault with this documentary is that because of the refusal to depend on interviews from Tyson’s friends and family means that it is very subjective and personal. The debate concerning Tyson’s status as a contemporary sporting icon hover in the background as an after thought and are deliberately side lined so that we get a much more intimate picture of the man himself. To a certain extent, Toback does want us to sympathise with Tyson and he ensures that he presents his friend as a wounded individual and victim of the American dream.

DER BAADER MEINHOF KOMPLEX (Dir. Uli Edel, Germany, 2008)

Is it right to romanticise terrorists or is it right to celebrate the revolutionary spirit of human resistance? Uli Edel’s superior political thriller seems to blur the line between such questions by presenting the members of the notorious Baader-Meinhof group as Marxist intellectual freedom fighters and sinister celebrities with a real taste for ideological banter. Released last year to great controversy, ‘The Baader-Meinhof Komplex’ is a gripping account of the tumultuous rise and fall of what is perhaps the most politically active Marxist group to have emerged out of European society in the last 50 years. Those involved in the production of this compelling drama have taken a lot of pleasure in bringing to life the 70s era and also doing so in way that thankfully never out rightly condemns the members of the group simply for espousing leftist beliefs. Some critics have accused the film of romanticising terrorism by depicting the group as contemporary anti heroes who use violence as a means of intellectual self defence from the corrupt ruling elite. I have to admit I was enthralled by every minute of this brilliant film and alongside ‘Goodbye Lenin’, ‘The Edukators’ and ‘Downfall’, this is yet another reason why German cinema continues to produce some of the most thought provoking and difficult political films. Yes, of course, at times the film does unfold like an essay but it is encouraging to finally come across a film that is not afraid of ideological discussion. And is it really a bad thing that the film makes Marxism seem oddly appealing to even the most discerning of viewers? I think not.

10 April 2009

BATTLE in SEATTLE (Dir. Stuart Townsend, 2008, US) - Fight The Power...

It seems these days that any film can be considered political in some way. Yet the apolitical nature of mainstream Hollywood cinema continues to stress the need for conservatism. Those films which can be considered leftist polemics still tend to originate from the margins of American independent cinema. Hollywood’s reluctance to deal with relevant and contemporary political issues is easily justified by an over eagerness to explain away such a problem, equating politics with the box office. This may be true to a certain extent as audiences have struggled with overtly politicised film making especially those backed by major studios. With the relative exception of George Clooney who has become strongly associated with the political thriller genre, having starred in three of the most interesting and significant political films of recent years (Michael Clayton, Syrianna and Good Night, Good Luck) the majority of the A list elite have been quietly subservient to their status as bankable box office draws. EBay founder turned Hollywood producer, Jeff Skoll, set up Participant Productions just as the affects of September 11 and America under George Bush were filtering through into mainstream Hollywood films. Syrianna is possibly the most striking example of a film that is unafraid of representing terrorism as a complex geopolitical one. Most of these politically oriented films have benefited from George Clooney’s status as a bankable box office draw and one could argue that his presence in many of these films has really been the over riding reason why they have attracted widespread press coverage and achieving moderate commercial success. Maybe then Clooney and Skoll are merely exploiting a niche that has worked well both critically and commercially. If this is just more Hollywood paying lip service to liberal film making then it will be interesting to see how long Clooney can maintain what amounts to a Robert Redford like political star image.

Apart from Brian De Palma with Redacted, none of the old wave of established auteur's like Scorsese or Coppola have tried to deal with either the corrupt Presidency of George Bush or the war in Iraq. However, Spielberg with Munich has come the closest to making one of the fiercest and most compelling mainstream studies of how terrorism is far removed from the simplistic polarised rhetoric espoused by the Bush administration. It does seem ironic that such a political film would come from the most mainstream of Hollywood film makers yet Spielberg’s ability to make such a film and face very little interference from the studios or any kind of real political opposition illustrates the singularly unique position that he occupies in American cinema today.

Partly financed and directed by Irish actor Stuart Townsend, Battle in Seattle recreates the violent clashes that took place between police and anti globalisation protesters at the 1999 WTO talks in Seattle. You can see why somebody would want to make a film about what has come to be seen as a defining event in the history of today’s supposedly apathetic generation. Dubbed 'The Battle in Seattle’ by the worldwide media, the WTO protests saw anti globalisation at its peak. It was also a moment when public protest seemed to be politically effective in achieving the task of disrupting the talks and achieving the aim of bringing the world’s attention to how an elite group of hegemonic corporations and leaders continues to monopolise trade by restricting and suppressing the economic development of developing nations especially Africa. Most recently, Richard Linklater also criticised the forces of globalisation and corporate domination with Fast Food Nation. The box office for many of these similarly styled political films has been grim and the difficulty with securing a wide distribution of prints and under funded marketing campaigns has worked effectively to keep audiences away. The resurgence of the documentary medium over the last ten years has produced many of the finest and astute dissections of corporate power. The Power of Nightmares, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bowling for Columbine, Outfoxed, Fog of War are just some notable examples.

As a film, Battle in Seattle tries to cram in far too many characters, plot lines and events into what is a suspicious running time of little over ninety minutes. Townsend seems out of his depth in many respects and though one can understand the noble intentions behind wanting to invest your own money into a worthwhile political lesson, the film suffers from a weak script that is devoid of any kind of political debate. Condensing the events of a number of days into a multi narrative that features a plethora of implausible characters is what makes the film into an over wrought political soap opera. Townsend just doesn’t go far enough when it comes to explaining the politics of the activists and the absence of ideological discussion from the activists perspective suggests a reluctance to politicise many of the characters in fear of invoking his own political sympathies. The film is also let down by an ensemble cast of actors who also seem out of their depth, with many cast in roles that simply don’t convince. Take for example Connie Nielsen as a news reporter who appears at the unlikeliest of moments, acting as though she has never witnessed or come across incidents of police brutality before. Such absurd coincidences are pushed into fantasy land when the pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) of a police officer (Woody Harrelson) is caught up in the protests and becomes the victim of a brutal attack by out of control police officers. It is a ridiculous scenario and the aftermath between Theron and Harrelson is played out with pondering close ups of candles and a mushy melodramatic score that is out of synch with the rest of the film’s focus on the clashes between the Seattle police and peaceful protesters. Nevertheless, had Townsend been much more confident with his representations of the political activists then it may have matched the assurance with which he depicts those characters who do have a platform from which to articulate their ideological concerns, namely the angry African delegate, the Doctor/Professor campaigning for cheaper medicine and the empathetic Mayor of Seattle.

The film does end on a markedly different tone to recent political films as this was one of the few times in which political protest did make a difference and the celebratory tone of defiance and muted victory by the protesters echoes the reality that the WTO were eventually forced to suspend the talks. Though the triumph of the WTO protests may never have changed many things in a geo-political context, it did for a short time express the collective will of a generation which has more or less become subsumed into the Starbucks culture of today’s corporate take over. The events of 1999 in Seattle are far too important and significant to be ignored by film makers as they continue to aspire people to resist corporate hegemony and I have a feeling that this may be the first of many films that are likely to be made about anti-globalisation especially in today’s bankrupt economic climate in which people feel deeply frustrated about why a select few continue to set the global social, economic and political agenda. I would still encourage everybody to watch Battle in Seattle, if only to engage with many of the intriguing political questions and debates posed by the film.