29 May 2009

DRAG ME TO HELL (Dir. Sam Raimi, 2009, US) - Pleasures of the B-Movie

Alison Lohman as Christine Brown; the woman in peril or the final girl?

American film maker, Sam Raimi's calling card 'The Evil Dead' seemed to arrive at just the right time. Released in 1981, the American horror genre had been more or less been exhausted by the emergence of the slasher sub genre in the seventies. This was signalled by the release of John Carpenter's 'Halloween' in 1979 which summarised the incredible ingenuity that many of the American horror films had demonstrated, responding to the anxieties of the decade with great ideological intelligence. Raimi's ultra low budget do-it-yourself film making philosophy made the horror genre the perfect vehicle for making a debut, permitting him to do some really eccentric and crazy things with the camera. An independently financed film, 'The Evil Dead' borrowed many of the slasher horror conventions and turned them on their head through a form of outrageous parody. Raimi would go on to direct two more additions, producing what would become a cult trilogy. Though 'The Evil Dead' films would run into censorship problems regarding its graphic nature, Raimi's career benefited enormously from the home video boom and low budget horror films proved to be a lucrative genre for those who were quick to exploit the emergence of a new home video rental audience.

In the nineties, Raimi shifted his focus towards the mainstream, directing two notable genre films. 'The Quick and the Dead', a postmodern western with a feminist twist featuring then powerful Sharon Stone in the lead role of a vengeful gunslinger who locks horns with an on form Gene Hackman as an evil Sheriff titled 'Herod'. This was followed by what many consider to be his best film to date, 'A Simple Plan', starring Bill Pullman and Billy Bob Thornton. A beautifully shot and compelling take on the film noir genre (makes a worthy companion piece to the Coen's 1996 film 'Fargo' which also made exemplary use of the wintry landscape), 'A Simple Plan' was highly uncharacteristic of Raimi as a film maker. The film featured none of the disorientating camerawork or dark humour that had been a prominent signature of his previous films. Instead Raimi seemed to prove a point by adopting a very pared down approach, opting for a much more tighter focus on character and showing a reflective attitude towards the thematic value of the genre.

Director Sam Raimi on the set of his new film, 'Drag me to hell'.

Initially a James Cameron project, the first Spiderman film was the one that elevated Raimi into the ranks of the mainstream elite. Though he was a huge fan of the comic book, Raimi seemed like an unusual choice considering the moderate success he had enjoyed at the box office. On reflection, it was a risky proposition especially given the fact that most franchises today are rarely given over to film makers with relatively poor bankability. Yet such a move by Sony seemed to bring joy for the fans of the comic book, appeasing those voices on the Internet who were already predicting the negative outcome of a film which had yet to be made. Personally, I have never found the idea of Spiderman particularly appealing but all three films directed by Raimi have been a formidable force at the international box office. Working as a director for hire and successfully overseeing the launch of such an important franchise, Raimi was inevitability forced to compromise his authorial presence.

With the Spiderman films, Raimi was transformed into one of Hollywood's most bankable film makers. One could argue that Spiderman is such a powerful brand that the director is relatively unimportant to the creative process which relies primarily on the competitive marketing of a high concept. Nevertheless, the first two films were well reviewed by critics and make for competent examples of the comic book film genre. Raimi's return to the horror genre was also somewhat of an inevitability, considering the widespread criticism he received for Spiderman 3, with many citing it as the worst in the series and also suggesting that Raimi had somehow diluted his status as a director by pandering to commercial pressures. With 'Drag me to hell', part of me suspects that Raimi has only made this film as a response to his position as a film maker, proving that when he works outside the constraints of a studio project, he can show an impressive grasp of genre and also produce a film that expresses a personal interest in specific ideas and concerns.

Poster artwork from the marketing campaign

With 'Drag me to Hell', Raimi references profusely and rapidly a range of key favourite horror films from obscure Hammer productions like Terence Fisher's 'The Devil Rides Out' to more familiar examples of the American horror genre like 'Psycho'. The self referential approach makes Raimi's film altogether more pleasurable for the fans of his Evil Dead trilogy. This is especially effective and evident in much of the dark humour that accompanies the supernatural elements of what is in many ways a predictable horror film. Great horror films tend to be judged greatly on the ending and what separates 'Drag me to Hell' from many of recent torture porn exploitation horror films is the brilliantly judged final sequence. In terms of genre expectations, here is finally an American horror film that really knows how to confound the audience without resorting to some kind of narrative compromise. What also makes Raimi's film very timely is the nature of the central character's occupation as Christine Brown, played by Alison Lohman, is a loan officer working in a non-descript bank. She is shown to be a gatekeeper, approving and denying loans to the American middle class but the competitive nature of her job means that she is subjected to the rituals of a capitalist system that brings about her own destruction. I'm not sure but it felt as though Raimi was commenting on how the collapse of an economic system may actually be a positive thing considering how soulless society has become of late. This is by no means a masterpiece (once again the UK poster for the film is bludgeoned with a deluge of absurdist quotes from critics) but it is a surprisingly original and witty entry in the contemporary American horror genre and thankfully, no torture.

27 May 2009

THE INTERNATIONAL (Dir. Tom Tykwer, 2009, US/Germany) - 'I am more comfortable tense...'

Clive Owen as Interpol Agent, Louis Salinger

Clive Owen as an unkept interpol agent, wearing a long (brownish) mack and supporting a scornful look on his greyish stubble seems about right for an actor who continues to play the same anti-hero role he enacted in the splendidly directed ‘Children of Men’. Owen was the difficult British actor the producers were unable to intice to the brand that is Bond, having to settle (for the time being that is) with the bullish charms of Daniel Craig. As Louis Salinger (allusions to The Catcher in the Rye abound here) Owen fails to break a smile in the entire film. But how can this be? Well, the contempt and frustration Salinger harbours towards the international banking system extends from the apparent lack of transparency and more importantly, the moral impunity with which banks operate in third world countries. Tom Tykwer’s latest film, ‘The International’ appears on the surface as a rich political thriller and for most of the time, it is a polished and slick production, but it seems to lose much of it’s momentum towards the final third of the film. I would have liked to have seen much more of a edgy conclusion to the film as it wasn’t really in keeping with Owen’s character of Salinger, a representative of civil justice who should have pushed the boundaries by imitating the disillusionment of a figure like Harry Calahan. Tykwer’s major problem with this film is that it functions and takes place within the universe of genre and not auteur. Very little of Tykwer as a film maker can be identified in the film apart from the use of music and the thematic value of pursuit. The political thriller is perhaps one of the few Hollywood genres that offers some scope in terms of social commentary and questioning within the conservative parameters of the mainstream. This has certainly been the case with recent films like ‘Michael Clayton’ and ‘Syriana’ but such ideological discussion is limited in Tykwer’s film as the $50 million budget demand that set pieces punctuate the human drama.

Director, Tom Tykwer filming on location in Istanbul with Clive Owen

Inspired by the collapse of The Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) during the late 80s in which a litany of fraud and corruption was exposed as a form of regular practise, Eric Singer’s screenplay draws upon such a grim financial reality to offer his own critique on the unaccountable nature of banks today and how they are uniquely autonomous in their exploitation of armed conflict around the world. Though Tkywer knows how to shoot architecture, positioning Salinger in an underwhelmingly powerless relationship with the banking corporation and their vast eddifices of invincibility (The International Bank of Business and Credit), it is the characters that suffer from a case of narrative predictablity and generic inertia. I’m sure the Guggenheim sequence will be much celebrated and feature regularly in an obscure top ten of recent memorable action sequences, but for me the most telling moment comes when Salinger meets Umberto Calvini, the head of a powerful weapons manufacturer, who informs him very cautiously that the entire system of banking is built on control, the control of debt and our enslavement to it. This seems to be the crux of the film’s underlining ideological argument and it is chillingly reiterated through the end credits in which Salinger's active attempt to take on the banking corporation for their untouchable status is ridiculed as an exercise in futility.

L'AMOUR L'APRES-MIDI / LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (Dir. Eric Rohmer, 1972, France)

Chloe's seduction of Frederic leads to a moral dilemma for both of them

The sixth and final part of Rohmer's moral tales, 'Love in the Afternoon' sees Frederic (Bernard Verley), a married man and lawyer wandering the streets of Paris in the afternoon, indulging his own particular fantasies with various beautiful women. Externalising his confusing emotion state through a very cerebral voice over, we come to know Frederic as someone who is facing a real crisis in his life. Having married Helene (Francoise Verley), a waif like English Professor, and learning to cope with the reality of married life and children in which the idea of a relationship has already been exhausted, Frederic is forced to repress his desire to seek out a new relationship. However, Frederic's elevated social position in French society means that he is subjected to a kind of repression that is linked to his perceptions about the need to adopt a morally conservative attitude. Frederic's bourgeoisie status is an element of the urban Parisian male that Rohmer challenges with the emancipated liberalism of Chloe (Zouzou) who behaves and dresses as if she has just stepped out of a film directed by Godard. Chloe clearly seems to represent the affects of a sexually permissive society in the 60s and her staunchly independent character serves to remind us of how the liberalism of the 60s in France in essence failed to filter down and change the strict conservatism of male identity and relationships. Chloe's unexpected intrusion into Frederic's boring life of banal routine reinvigorates his attitude to married life and makes him question his relationship with Helene.

Criterion have released the 'Six Moral Tales' on DVD

Rohmer depicts relationships in his films quite like no other film maker as the moral dilemmas in which many of the characters find themselves are both convincingly scripted and deliberately understated through what appears at first to be an invisible directorial style. Infidelity continues to be an aspect of relationships that is explored in many films released each year by Hollywood and specialised cinema yet I can only think of a handful of films that have been able to do explore the issue with a truthfulness like Rohmer. Stanley Kubrick's last film, 'Eyes Wide Shut (1999)', and perhaps his most widely misunderstood, also deals with adulterous anxieties and repressed sexual fantasies of a wealthy, urban New York couple played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Kubrick substitutes the lightness of the afternoon as a landscape for infidelity with the unreal and unsettling settings of a noirish New York city to create a technically rigorous and emotionally deadening study of marriage. The shortcomings of a film like 'Eyes Wide Shut' is the constant authorial presence of a film maker like Kubrick and though this may seem like a marker of quality cinema, 'Love in the Afternoon' benefits greatly from the unobtrusive cinematic approach of Rohmer.

23 May 2009

LE SILENCE DE LORNA / THE SILENCE OF LORNA (Dir. The Dardennes, 2008, Belgium)

Actress, Arta Dobroshi plays the character of 'Lorna'; a brilliant performance

Each time I come across another Dardenne film, I am compelled to position them alongside Tawianese film maker, Hsiao-hsien Hou and Robert Bresson. Such is the control over the space which the characters inhabit, for a spectator it becomes a real matter of academic and intellectual study. Perhaps this is a cinema of cinephile obsessiveness, reflected in the deeply serious concern for contemporary social themes and anxieties. Much has been written about the ephemeral nature of the female characters that occupy the post industrial landscape of Seraing (Belgium) and Lorna, an Albanian immigrant, continues the moral and spiritual crisis they suffer before they can come to terms with the contempt with which society enslaves those who are adrift in the forgotten underclass. Oddly enough, the real change in direction for The Dardennes in terms of adhering to the principles of an orthodox neo realist style is the convoluted and at times hard to follow plot. This is arguably one of the weaknesses and though it is a complicated plot goes only to underline the idea that even Lorna cannot fully comprehend the complexity of the scam in which she has become entangled. At first, The Dardennes seem to want to make a powerful statement about the desperation of European migrants but the second half of the film moves into an entirely ambivalent direction, observing and detailing with great emotional honesty how morality is an aspect of humanity that cannot be negotiated with in terms of money.

Lorna makes a deal with Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), a shady Italian taxi-driver who is involved a number of scams with desperate immigrants

Time and time again, the Dardennes have proved in all of their films that avoiding the trap of over explanation and giving the audience the bare minimum in terms of both characterisation and narrative expresses a trust and confidence in allowing the spectator to become actively involved in the process of interpretation. The Dardennes have fully embraced a minimalist style of film making and the dependency on location shooting, natural lighting and non professional actors serves to anchor the vehement humanist agenda that links many of the films. Some critics have compared them to British film maker, Ken Loach, but this may not be entirely fair (not that this is a complement either) considering that the Dardennes are scientifically subservient to a rigorous cinematic approach. Unlike the Dardennes consistently neo realist style, Loach has never been afraid of compromising style for ideological demands. It is the overt transparency of a strong political agenda that separates Ken Loach from the Dardennes. Most of Loach's cinema continues to be driven by a leftist impulse and though his films act as an articulate and perfectly noble expression of the British working class, he is an ideological film maker at his core. The Dardennes on the other hand are much more concerned with representing the social underclass through allegorical means of expression and I guess this is why many of their films succeed in providing us with stories of humanism that are free of sentiment and full of moral ambiguity and uncertainty.

20 May 2009

THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (Dir. Peter Yates, 1973, US) - 'I shoulda known better than to trust a cop...'

The stoic Robert Mitchum as the low life ex-con, Eddie Coyle.

The noir universe is one without any boundaries and those who choose to inhabit such a vacuous and tragic landscape are sure to be determined by the laws of inevitability. The low life criminals that drift across the cinematic spaces of Peter Yates under rated noir character study are dead men; ghosts. Though they try to behave with a degree of normality by attempting to integrate into everyday reality, their mental state is a prisoner of a doomed moral code. 'The Friends of Eddie Coyle' is another brilliant seventies film that turns the notion of genre on its head by refusing to reinforce familiar crime/noir conventions. Instead we are presented with an intense and detailed character study of the behaviour and relationship between a ruthless police detective and the criminals who seem indebted to him in one way or another. The understated nature of the direction by Yates and what is a subdued narrative creates an evocative mood piece.

Mitchum's Coyle tries to play both ends as a police informer and gun-runner.

Shot entirely in and around the city of Boston, the film's grasp of the seediness of the urban milieu is like an American equivalent of Jean Pierre Melville's fondness for observing the behaviour, psychology and codes of his uncompromising criminals. Considered by many to feature Robert Mitchum's last great performance and maybe even his best, the foolish yet tragic character of Eddie Coyle is an aging criminal who is forced to become an informer so that he can avoid going to prison at a time when he should be enjoying his retirement. Perfectly cast, the desperation etched on the haggard face of Coyle is that of the doomed noir protagonist. From the moment Coyle appears on screen, we just know that this man is never going to make it to the end, that his life holds very little value to those around him. Film critic, Kent Jones, provides one of the best appreciation's for the film in his specially commissioned essay to accompany the release of the film on the Criterion DVD label.

17 May 2009

DELHI-6 (Dir. Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, 2009, India) - The Diaspora, Duality and Delhi

Indian cinema is currently going through one of its worst periods. Not only has the quality of film making been exceptionally below average but the crisis that unfolded between the producers/distributors and multiplex exhibitors in early April has led to a prolonged strike that continues to have an impact on the domestic box office:

‘Producers and distributors are demanding a 50:50 revenue-sharing deal with the multiplexes, regardless of cast or production budget, as opposed to the current variable week-on-week percentages...’


The outcome of this dispute will likely and potentially determine the long term relationship between distributors and exhibitors when it comes to the lucrative area of multiplex cinemas. Most of the major Hollywood studios and film stars have come together in expressing their displeasure over the uneven financial monopoly wielded by the emergence of the multiplex cinema chains. When and how such a significant stand off will be resolved is still very much in its early stages and it will likely to have a major affect on the tent pole films awaiting release for the summer season.

Abhishek Bachchan as the American Indian, Roshan Mehra; a symbol of the Indian diaspora?

UTV Motion Pictures is today one of Indian cinema’s most powerful and critically acclaimed film production companies, having already invested in a few Hollywood films including Shyamalan’s ‘The Happening’. UTV struck box office gold in 2004 with the Aamir Khan starer, ‘Rang De Basanti’ (Paint it Yellow), a contemporary youth orientated political drama. The film was directed by an emerging and talented Indian film maker, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, who had shifted from a successful career in advertising to making his debut feature with none other than Amitabh Bachchan in a dark thriller titled ‘Aks’. Having established a successful working relationship with UTV which were instrumental in staging an inventive and expensive international marketing campaign for ‘Rang De Basanti’, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra’s latest film, ‘Delhi-6’ saw him reteam with a number of key collaborators including UTV, scriptwriter, Prasoon Joshi and the legendary Indian actress Waheeda Rehman.

Rishi Kapoor as Ali Beg; the voice of the moderate Muslim

I was disappointed by Mehra’s new film because for a film maker who had shown that politics and the youth could actually work together quite fluently in a mainstream film like ‘Rang De Basanti’ with ‘Delhi-6’ he seems to revert back to a kind of conventional cinema that propagates the same contrived narratives and over worked themes which find their way into many Indian films of late. Take for example, the journey of the Non Resident Indian who discovers that though he may have been born in America, his true origins and identity belongs to his homeland, India. Even worse is the uninventive and tired sub plot of the repressed Indian girl who rebels against her father’s wishes for an arranged marriage, only to end up in the arms of the innocent outsider. I can see why Mehra would want to make a film about the area of Delhi-6 particularly as it works so colourfully as a microcosm of an Indian society that shows Hindus and Muslims living in a state of peaceful co existence but the script falters in creating a convincing set of characters and an engaging narrative, falling back on a desperation to outline a strong moral conviction which unfortunately ends up being far too preachy and didactic in what is a very uninspired ending.

In one of the more interesting ideological aspects of the film, the agnostic character of Roshan Mehra adopts a dual religious identity which not only expresses the co existence of the Delhi-6 community but also points to his own scepticism with religion acting as a force of good within contemporary Indian society.

With a mildly average score by A R Rehman and competent performances by an ensemble cast compromising of Rishi Kapoor, Om Puri, Prem Chopra, Abhishek Bachchan, Divya Dutta and Soonam Kapoor, ‘Delhi-6’ has not performed terribly well at the box office either and yet again such disappointing cinema serves to only further underline the commercial and critical slump being experienced by the current crop of mainstream Indian films.

16 May 2009

RED CLIFF: PART I AND II (Dir. John Woo, 2008, China) - 'Truth and illusion are often disguised as each other...'

Tony Leung as the General and Leader, Zhou Yu, of the Rebel Army

An ambitious undertaking from one of the key film makers of the Hong Kong new wave in the 1980s, John Woo’s Asian homecoming is the most expensive film made in Asia to date. An epic action adventure saga, ‘Red Cliff’ suggests that Woo should never have disembarked to Hollywood in the first place. His career in Hollywood has been an uneven one, and though he undoubtedly replicated many of his signature shots like slow motion gun play and white doves sweeping into frame, films like ‘Broken Arrow’ and ‘Windtalkers’ lacked the manic energy, wit and sheer breathlessness of his influential Hong Kong action films. When Woo and his long time producer Terence Chang announced the ‘Red Cliff’ project with a budget estimated at $80 million dollars, industry pundits were quick to label it as somewhat of a financial gamble and commercial risk. Plagued by an unfortunate series of production problems including the much publicised exit of Chow Yun Fat (eventually replaced by Takeshi Kaneshiro who was subsequently pushed into a secondary role after Tony Leung stepped back into the frame after Woo’s pleading), and the death of a stuntman during filming, ‘Red Cliff’ quickly evolved into one of the most eagerly awaited ‘event’ films to have been released in Asia.

Takeshi Kaneshiro as the spiritual leader of the alliance formed between the remaining rebel armies

The film’s record breaking opening weekend and promising box office run not only overturned Titanic’s long standing precedent, but reiterated how the Asian film industry is capable of financing tentpole productions that have the technical proficiency and star power to compete with the major Hollywood studios. The deeply indigenous nature of the production is underlined in the film’s historical scope, reconstructing ‘The Battle of Red Cliffs’, a key event from China’s past with a populist narrative that appeals to the nationalist sentiments of a predominately Chinese audience. The film was released in two parts in the Asian territories, totalling over four hours in length but UK audiences will only be able to watch the film in a shortened version. I have managed to watch the film in its full length version and part of me is pretty sceptical of the way in which UK distributors have chosen to offer only a compromise of an epic that should really seen in the original context including what is an all important Bollywood style intermission.

Chiling Lin as Xiao Qiao; the wife of Zhou Yu

It is interesting to compare the visual extravagance of Woo's immaculately constructed canvas to that of Zhang Yimou's 'Curse of the Golden Flower'. Both seem to share a fascination with the details of what is a painstaking recreation of Chinese history, intricately bringing to life the opulence of such an era through the mesmerising production design, incredible costumes and vivid uses of colour. Unlike Yimou's elegant camerawork and understated reliance on simple set ups, Woo's control over the storytelling is purely motivated to achieve a visceral affect and invoking a strong overwrought emotional response. The battle sequences are on par if not better than the ones which have supposedly set a benchmark in terms of technical expertise (namely 'Gladiator', 'Spartacus' and '300') and choreographed with just the right level of bravado. Woo also draws a great deal from ancient history and in particular Homer's Iliad, an epic poem that recounts the Trojan war.

Fengyi Zhang is sublimely menacing as the warlord, Cao Cao who crowns himself Chancellor of the Imperial Army

Featuring an all star cast of Asian cinema’s finest including the magnanimous Tony Leung, ‘Red Cliff’ is a film that is best viewed in the context of Woo’s hyperbolic cinematic approach, pushing the action sequences to the point of self parody and exaggerating the emotional content of the narrative so that is becomes an expensive soap opera. I found ‘Red Cliff’ to be an exhilarating and at times moving experience but it is one that takes place in the realms of absolute fantasy and indulges in those John Woo stylistic flourishes with a gratifying degree of guilty cinematic pleasure. This may just be the best thing John Woo has directed in many a years; let's just hope he never goes back to making those underwhelming films in Hollywood again.

15 May 2009

WENDY AND LUCY (Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2008, US) - 'You can't get a job without a job...'

Indie film maker Todd Haynes acted as one of the producers on the film

There was a time when the word independent actually meant something quite profound in the realms of cinema. Today, many of the widely seen indie films tend to have been financed in some way by a major studio or propped up by a clever marketing campaign. It is still safe to say that any film made outside the mainstream, funded independently and aimed at a specialised audience would usually constitute an actual indie film yet the term seems to have taken more commercialised aspects today which suggests that independent cinema has all but been subsumed into the bland sphere of the Hollywood mainstream. Arguably with the advent of DVD and the Internet, the term independent cinema has lost totally its meaning when considering accessibility is not the same problem it was in the past.

Geoff King’s recent book on contemporary American cinema grapples quite intelligently with the emergence of ‘indiewood’, a term that he deftly explains:

‘The term ‘Indiewood’ was coined in the mid-1990s to denote a part of the American film spectrum in which distinctions between Hollywood and the independent sector appeared to have become blurred…the term is often used as a disparaging label by those involved in, or supportive of, the independent sector, as a way of marking off certain types of cinema deemed to be too close to the activities of the studios to be deserving of the label ‘independent’…’

So called American independent films like ‘Juno’, ‘Crash’, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ are in truth part of a new wave of studio financed cinema that have been given the indie tag purely for marketing reasons and the motivation to attract critical acclaim in the form of awards. Many of these ‘Indiewood’ films were partly financed and distributed by the major studios under friendly indie production companies like Lions Gate, Focus Features and Fox Search Light. The Sundance film festival continues to act as the perfect market for the studios to seek out potential new independent films which could cross over and also attract a certain degree of prestige. Nevertheless, many ‘Indiewood’ films straddle the line between independent and mainstream cinema in a way that invites criticisms to do with selling out and creative compromise.

Michelle Williams is clearly one of the most understated actors of her generation

So which film makers working today in American cinema could still be considered independent? Not many should probably by the response but the current crop of American independent films making waves with critics and at the various film festivals suggest that independent cinema has never been stronger. Perhaps the Hollywood studios love affair with the ‘indiewood’ brand is coming to and end. It surely seems the case when considering how recently Warner Bros effectively closed down their speciality division, Warner Independent Pictures (WIP), bringing to an end what amounted to a highly successful flirtation with financing mid to low budget films. Though the films produced by WIP performed unevenly at the box office, they did succeed in backing and distributing some very edgy and politically unconventional films like Clooney’s McCarthy era polemic ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ and Linklater’s animated cyberpunk adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel ‘A Scanner Darkly’. Paramount Studio’s speciality division, Paramount Vantage, had an unprecedented run of critically acclaimed films that in some cases like ‘Babel’ and ‘There will be blood’ attracted a sizable audience.

Many of the films financed under the Paramount Vantage banner were either a chance for a mainstream Hollywood star like Brad Pitt or an actor turned director like Sean Penn to extend their oeuvre in the reassuring parameters of a major studio. However, the steady number of films that underperformed at the box office seemed to play a major factor in leading to the demise of Vantage, just as the division was finding its feet and succeeding in backing films of authorial expression and sociological relevance. I would like to have seen Paramount continue supporting such a rich and creative speciality division which was hugely successful in bringing together independent art house sensibilities with mainstream populist concerns. The Coen Brothers Oscar winning neo noir western, ‘No Country for Old Men’ stands as perhaps the peak of Vantage’s many short lived achievements. Though this gamble seemed to suggest that though Hollywood were cynically trying to capitalise on targeting the specialised indie audience, they nevertheless proved that it was possible to have best of both worlds.

'Wendy and Lucy' is yet another intriguing and inspired addition to what is surely being touted as a new wave of neo realist American independent films. Directed by emerging film maker, Kelly Reichardt, on a low budget and shot entirely on location, the film implements a starkly simplistic plot of a young girl who must find her companion, a Labrador named Wendy. The cryptic and grungy character of the central character, Wendy, is played by Michelle Williams who appears in virtually every scene, building her performance around the emotional attachment she has with her dog, Lucy. It’s easy to argue that such a film has no plot and that the idea of losing a dog is a very sentimental narrative situation one would come across in a children’s film. The ‘lost and found’ narrative is a strangely familiar and like ‘the stranger who comes to town’ narrative is one that forms the basis of many novels and films. The film uses the disappearance of the dog merely as an obvious means of exploring the margins of American society and how those who choose not to be assimilated have to dig deep when it comes to coping with poverty.

Rosetta (1999), directed by the Dardennes seems to be a key influence on the recent wave of neo realist films

I’m not so sure if this new wave of neo realist films should really be considered something uniquely original because much of the style and ideology in a film like ‘Wendy and Lucy’ is indebted to the influences of European film makers like The Dardennes. Similarly, Bahrani has acknowledged Kiarostami and the Iranian new wave as a powerful influence. In terms of both its elliptical, minimalist style and subdued tone, Wendy and Lucy is probably closest to a film like The Dardennes masterpiece, 'Rosetta', managing to achieve a note of honesty and authenticity through moments of genuine compassion. This is an incredibly short film, clocking in at around 80 minutes and the brevity and economy maintained through the narrative points to another defining characteristic of films like 'Chop Shop' and 'Wendy and Lucy'.

New York Film critic, A O Scott, recently wrote what is a very important article on the emergence of what he ironically termed ‘neo neo realism’ in American independent cinema. Scott’s response offers what is perhaps the most articulate and illustrative analysis of this new wave of oppositional film making:

In contrast, Bahrani said, Hollywood wish-fulfillment tales — or the faux-independent dramas of adversity followed by third-act redemption — did not strike him as hopeful at all. “They just don’t make any sense,” he said. “They create massive confusion.” To which his own films (and films like “Ballast,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Sugar” and “Treeless Mountain”) might serve, in their very different ways, as an antidote. Not because they offer grim counsels of despair or paint lurid tableaux of desperation but rather because they take what has always seemed seductively easy about movie making — the camera can show us the world — and make it look hard. Their characters undergo a painful process of disillusionment, and then keep going. The disappointment they encounter — the grit with which they face it, the grace with which it is conveyed — becomes, for the audience, a kind of exhilaration. What happens at the end of a dream? You wake up.

Neo-Neo Realism by A.O. Scott, The New York Times, March 17 2009

11 May 2009

STAR TREK (Dir. JJ Abrams, 2009, US) - 'No, I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space...'

Rebooting an old franchise; the new crew of the Enterprise

The next few weeks will see the release of a number of high profile tent pole blockbuster spectacles yet the idea of a summer movie season seems relatively absurd today especially when scrutinising the UK release schedule which is over crowded with high concept studio products and franchises. With the successful commercial gains made by the rebooting of dormant franchises like the Batman films and also older, more familiar brands like Indiana Jones and Die Hard, Paramount Studios were anxious to give the green light to one of their oldest and most recognisable of film series; Star Trek. Creator and Producer of the hit TV series Lost, J J Abrams seems to have been a natural choice for rebooting the Star Trek franchise.

Since signing an exclusive in house contract with Paramount, Abrams has overseen the production of Cloverfield as well as debuting as a director with another Paramount-Tom Cruise franchise, the Mission Impossible films. I’m not entirely sure if Abrams wants to be seen as a film maker and though Star Trek is a well made mainstream Hollywood film, his strengths lie in his ability to shape ideas, manage budgets and execute well thought out marketing campaigns. However, being given the responsibility of revamping what is a very iconic science fiction brand meant that Abrams was able to more or less learn from the success of both Batman Begins and Casino Royale in helping to rejuvenate and ultimately reinvent a tried and tested genre for a new contemporary audience. For any genre to remain popular with audiences, it must constantly learn to adapt and reinvent itself several times over by adding new elements but also ensuring that straying too far from the conventions may result in a kind of nostalgic betrayal.

The 1960 original and definitive Star Trek crew

Like Batman Begins and Casino Royale, the new Star Trek film returns to an origins story by casting a set of youthful faces in the roles of genre defining characters like James T Kirk, Spock, Uhara and Chekov. The original television series was created by Gene Roddenberry as a reaction to the cold war and the universal animosity that had been generated between America and Russia. Capitalising on the worldwide interest in space travel and the landing of the moon, Star Trek was interpreted by some as a manifestation of American imperialism yet in essence, the original series used science fiction as an ideological vehicle to address a range of important social and political issues. The first series was released between 1966 and 1969, a turbulent time of massive social upheaval and political questioning. Simultaneously, the United Nations was still a relatively new and formidable international organisation, having been set up after World War II in an attempt to create a consensus of core moral and political values which all nations were obliged to follow.

Originally, the Federation in Star Trek took its political inspiration from the United Nations and it is fascinating to see how the isolation of the UN under George Bush is readdressed in the ideology of the new Star Trek film. Not only do we see in the film, the repositioning of the Federation as an ideological re branding of contemporary American politics by Obama but such a progressive view of the future could never have been refashioned with such liberalism under the auspice of George Bush’s conservative administration. Like many of the best science fiction films, Star Trek taps into current fears and anxieties to do with political diplomacy, pre emptive ideology, genocide, torture and most significantly, racial tolerance. It’s not a brilliant film, nor is it in anyway definitive science fiction cinema but it seems to work quite effectively as a cinematic spectacle which succeeds in fusing the new with the old.

10 May 2009

CHOP SHOP (Dir. Ramin Bahrani, 2007, US)

Chop Shop is Ramin Bahrani's 2nd film as a director

American independent film maker Ramin Bahrani’s third feature, Goodbye Solo, is currently receiving a warm critical reception, confirming the predictions of some critics who were quick to underline his undiluted neo realist approach to cinema. Debuting with Man Push Cart in 2005, a low budget film shot in New York, which focuses on the marginal character of a Pakistani immigrant and rock musician who is forced to survive by pushing around a food cart, Ramin Bahrani extended the outsider theme further in his second film, Chop Shop. Featuring an incredibly nuanced and compelling performance by non professional child actor Alejandro Polanco in the role of a twelve year old street orphan, ‘Ale’, Chop Shop imitates the neo realist philosophies of the Iranian new wave to produce a beautifully judged and elliptically inspired example of contemporary independent cinema that is unflinchingly authentic in its representation of America’s underclass. Bahrani is certainly a film maker who knows his cinema, succeeding in borrowing many of the visual traits and cinematic techniques characterising much of the neo realist works of influential film makers like Abbas Kiarostami and Vittorio De Sica and achieving a similar ideological concern for intriguing social dilemmas and moral questions facing those who exist on the fringes of American society. In Chop Shop, ‘Ale’ (short for Alejandro) and his sister ‘Izzy’ (Isamar Gonzales) live day to day by working low paid menial jobs with the hope of buying their own mobile food van. In exchange for the work Ale completes at an auto body repair shop, the owner allows them to sleep in the back of the shop.

Bahrani like many of the best exponents of the neo realist approach to film making, withholds key narrative information by refusing to provide back story or any kind of clear character motivation. Ellipsis becomes a decisive technique with which to hook the spectator and this means we are merely given a snapshot of a reality in motion. Bahrani’s cinema is about observing and scrutinising those micro details of everyday life that is either ignored in most mainstream cinema or condensed in order to salvage narrative time. Chop Shop is about inscribing the fragments of reality and this finds a poetic visual expression in the repetitive nature of the narrative, with Bahrani concentrating on the disempowering social position occupied by both Ale and Izzy. Poverty is neither humiliating nor exaggerated but treated with a certain degree of humanism so that we recognise Ale and Izzy’s plight as a metaphor of perseverance and perhaps even a natural product of today’s disconnected and vacuous society. American film critic, Roger Ebert, puts forward one of the most impassioned and articulate arguments for Bahrani’s importance as a key American film maker:

‘Ramin Bahrani is the new great American director. After three films, each a master work, he has established himself as a gifted, confident filmmaker with ideas that involve who and where we are at this time. His films pay great attention to ordinary lives that are not so ordinary at all. His subjects so far have been immigrants working hard to make a living in America…’

‘The New Great American Director’, Roger Ebert’s Journal, March 22 2009

7 May 2009

ITTEFAQ / COINCIDENCE (Dir. Yash Chopra, 1969, India)

Rajesh Khanna as Dilip Roy in Yash Chopra's 1969 film Iteffaq

was a thriller Yash Chopra directed before he became a film maker strongly associated with the romantic melodramas of the 70s. Many consider it to be one of his finest films but I am not entirely convinced of the critical reputation of Itefaaq. On its release in 1969, Yash Chopra was praised for dispensing with the formulaic dependency on song and dance sequences, opting to locate most of the narrative action within the claustrophobic settings of a house (on obviously transparent sound stage) and casting one of Indian cinema’s most popular film stars, Rajesh Khanna, in the role of a neurotic anti hero who is falsely accused of murdering his wife. The conception of the film does have the feel of a daring experiment, much like Hitchcock’s classic Rope and some critics did pick up on the fact that this was the perhaps the closest a commercial film maker like Yash Chopra would come to imitating the language of the art film. However, the film has dated quite severely and today particularly suffers from a completely unnecessary sound mix that annoyingly heightens the soundtrack at obvious dramatic high points. It also suffers from some strangely unconvincing plot resolutions in which a highly nuanced police detective ridiculously solves not one, but two murder cases in the space of a few minutes.

The classic Khanna pose as the intoxicated, romantic hero

I was never a big fan of the Rajesh Khanna school of acting and I had always tried to avoid watching his films but his early retirement from acting, unlike his contemporaries, has made me return to many of the commercial films he made in the 60s like Anand and Namak Haram. Beneath the romantic facade was a talented actor and one of Indian cinema’s first genuine superstars but he faced the difficulty of convincing the critics to take him seriously as a credible actor other than a caricature of romantic tragedy. Many have remarked on the point I am about to make before but no matter how many times I read it or hear it, it only serves to reiterate the truth about the meteoric rise of Amitabh Bachchan in the 70s; without Rajesh Khanna, there would be no Amitabh. He did help pave the way for the phenomenon of the superstar and strangely enough, Rajesh Khanna’s laid back romantic on screen persona is the one that Indian film stars of today (Shah Rukh Khan) try their best to emulate. Yash Chopra directed a number of notable films in the 70s and much of his best work was a fruitful collaboration with Salim-Javed and Amitabh Bachchan. Today, he is revered as somewhat of a legendary figure and is a powerful studio boss who has eclipsed his directorial legacy with the internationally recognisable cinematic brand of Yash-Raj. Like his brother, B.R. Chopra, who gave him his first break as a director, Yash Chopra is one of Indian cinema's most successful film producers and though much of the recent output from the Yash-Raj studio which he helped establish has been quite average, a film like Itefaaq does seem highly unconventional when compared to the kind of escapist and superficial cinema he regularly oversees today with the aid of his son, Aditya Chopra.

6 May 2009

TAHAAN - A Boy with a Grenade (Dir. Santosh Sivan, 2008, India)

Purav Bhandare as 'Tahaan' and his donkey 'Birbal'

After the sumptuous period piece Before the Rains Indian film maker Santosh Sivan's latest film Tahaan takes him into an altogether different direction, confronting the issues of Kashmir, terrorism and childhood adolescence with his familiar and intimidating capacity to film landscapes for their natural beauty. There are two films which seem to have left a significant impression on the artistic sensibilities of Santosh Sivan whilst shaping the material into what is a very sentimental narrative. The first film is Iranian film maker, Bahman Ghobadi’s study of Kurdish orphans in A Time for Drunken Horses (2000); humanist cinema that though comes under the auspice of Kurdish cinema but is nevertheless a product of the Iranian new wave. This is especially true when considering that Ghobadi trained as an assistant under Abbas Kiarostami in the 90s. A Time for Drunken Horses is set in the wintry and inhospitable terrain of a remote Kurdish village which geographically seems positioned somewhere in the hinterlands of Iran and Iraq. Ghobadi’s deliberate focus on the landscapes of the region becomes a source of conflict which can be traced to Sivan’s similar decision to represent the mountainous terrain as something sacred and spiritual.

A Time For Drunken Horses (2000)

The use of non professional actors, natural lighting and location shooting are characteristics common to the neo realist philosophy yet Sivan’s use of children as a means of exploring a range of themes is the closest he comes to imitating the distilled language of film makers like Ghobadi. However, the parallels between the resourceful young boy, Ayoub, from A Time for Drunken Horses and Tahaan is striking in how both share the burden of responsibility at such an early age and also suffer a crisis of adulthood. Unlike the realist concerns of Gobadi, Sivan stylised approach means that he offers liberation for Tahaan by ensuring he achieves his goal of retaining the donkey by the end of the film. Such fairytale motivated closure is notably absent from the uncompromising realist preoccupations of the Iranian new wave and neo realist film makers of the past. Thus, one could argue that Sivan’s film uses the symbol of the donkey to demonstrate the emotional importance of escapism as key to maintaining the resilience and survival of children in such a bitter reality of endless conflict. Admittedly, using animals in a film is said to be somewhat of a conceit as it is a short cut and cheat to making the audience emotional.

The second cinematic influence seems more obscure assuming that Sivan has seen Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. Bresson’s heavily allegorical 1966 film used the symbolic figure of a donkey to illustrate the cruel and unforgiving nature of today’s apathetic society. Aside from the biblical connotations, 'Birbal' the donkey in Sivan’s film is an affective way of humanising the drama which takes place in the geopolitical context of Kashmir. It also makes us warm to Tahaan’s character very quickly and saves Sivan the job of having to resort to any unnecessary back story. Similarly like Bresson’s film in which the donkey passes through the hands of a series of ineffectual owners, Sivan also uses the donkey to not only allow Tahaan to encounter a number of oddball characters, but to advance the narrative in a way that seems unforced and natural. In many films, it is children who always make the adults around them see the value of humanity by placing their faith and even trust in animals.

Bresson's allegory; 'Au Hasard Balthazar' (1966)

The continuing political uncertainty surrounding the disputed region of Kashmir has been represented endlessly in the cinema of India. Yet such is the political complexity of the issue of Kashmir that very few film makers have successfully demonstrated a degree of impartiality that does not simply denigrate all Kashmiri Muslims as cross border terrorists with an undying allegiance to Pakistan. It might even be right to say that the Kashmir conflict has helped to spawn its very own distinct genre, complete with recognisable visual conventions and a familiar formula for mainstream box office success. In the mid 90s, with the rise of nationalist ideology (as exemplified in the political gains made by the BJP) and the continuing persecution of Muslims in much of India, the Kargil stand-off between Pakistan and India brought the two nations close to the edge of yet another war. All of these factors played a real part in fuelling the jingoism of many of the right wing mainstream Kashmiri based films that started to steadily emerge at the beginning of the 90s, eventually culminating in big budget event films with spectacular marketing campaigns like Border (1997), The Hero: The Love Story of a Spy (2003) and Mission Kashmir (2000).

Many of these films present a stark and politically motivated black and white morality in which Kashmiri militants and insurgents (mostly Muslims) are demonised as simply monstrous terrorists, hell bent on seeing that Kashmir remains in the hands of Muslims and propagating the belief that India has no right to exist. Sivan is not the first Indian film maker to show the Kashmir issue through the perspective of a Muslim family but any film which chooses to implement a balanced approach to what is still a contentious subject is sure to be viewed with some suspicion. The affects of the Kashmiri conflict are most readily felt in the plot line of Tahaan’s father. Declared missing, many know that this is something the Indian military chooses to endorse in fear of being accused of illegally detaining suspected Kashmiri militants. Though this seems like a convenient way of focusing the narrative on the young boy, it works in reminding us of the terrorism both sides inflict upon one another. Tahaan’s father acts as an invisible symbol of the continuing repression and persecution faced by Muslim families in an Indian controlled Kashmir.

Indian film maker J.P Dutta's epic tribute to Kargil

The BJP administration used the victory of Kargil as a means of bolstering political support and gaining widespread popularity with the Indian electorate. Bollywood’s response came immediately in the form of a series of flag waving propaganda films, celebrating the sacrifices of the Indian military and its brave soldiers. This was most clearly evident in the big budget multi starrer, LOC: Kargil, a film that ran for four hours long and had the endorsement of the Bollywood film industry with many of the biggest film stars lending their names to the production. However, the tumultuous events of September 11 and the thawing of diplomatic relations between the two nations meant that few films were made about Kashmir as the focus shifted towards addressing the emergence of the new threat posed by domestic, home grown terrorism. This has led to the production of a number of highly intelligent and well directed studies of urban based terrorism including films like Aamir (2007), A Wednesday (2008) and Black Friday (2006). With the recent Mumbai attacks, Kashmir has appeared on the political agenda as almost a dead issue. Thus it may seem odd that Sivan has tackled the Kashmir issue at a time when it has lost its wider political relevance and maybe this explains why the film chooses to use the figure of the defenceless young boy in order to avoid being pigeon holed as yet another film about Kashmir.

The presence of children in the films of Santosh Sivan is a motif which he keeps returning to with great interest. This can be traced as far back as his early feature films which have been categorised as children’s fairy tales. Even in his more mature films like The Terrorist, Asoka and Before the Rains, the figure of the child is crucial in acting as an obvious symbol of innocence but also as a contrast between the casual brutality of the adult world and the rationality of the one occupied by children. Consider how in Asoka, it is the needless death of Arya, the young prince, who ultimately helps to reform Asoka, transforming him into a pacifist and Buddhist. Children continue to act as the perfect vehicle for allegorically exploring a range of issues in a particular society without resorting to obvious polemical film making. It might even be true to say that the greatest film makers are the ones who can manipulate and coerce performances from child actors. Tahaan continues Sivan’s preoccupation with the child motif, positioning Tahaan’s character at the heart of the action and normalising the reality of poverty.

The political exploitation of Tahaan

One of the more direct political comments is offered through the relationship between Tahaan and a Kashmiri militant, underlining how children in such extreme political contexts are susceptible to exploitation for sinister purposes. Similarly, like Mali in The Terrorist, Tahaan has a choice between life and death but Sivan’s sensationalist decision to incorporate extremism into the narrative strays too far and becomes wholly unbelievable. Sivan never really makes it clear what exactly Tahaan is instructed to do with the grenade he has been asked to carry in exchange for his donkey, Birbal. Nevertheless, the exploitation of the child by the militant for political purposes is a realistic manifestation of the self destructive way in which the future of an entire generation has been compromised purely to further an impossible political cause. Though Sivan isolates Tahaan yet further by suggesting that the Indian military are in truth responsible for the illegal detention of his missing father, the final moments of the film seems to blame both the militants and the army for failing the people of Kashmir.

Sivan has only made a handful of films to date and the difficulty with pinning down a particular genre with which he is associated marks him as a film maker of great versatility who is not afraid of working on the margins if it means giving him the chance to work out personal authorial expression. I didn’t feel Tahaan was as strong as his previous work and this was largely because of the uneven narrative structure which meanders a great deal in the last third of the film, turning into somewhat of a coming of age road movie. In despite of these criticisms, Sivan’s cinematography is sublimely inspirational yet again.