30 May 2012

MOONRISE KINGDOM (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2012, US) - Welcome to WesWorld

Everyone wants to work with Wes Anderson!
I don’t like critical euphemisms such as ‘return to form’ because it implies certain filmmakers like Wes Anderson lost their directorial mojo when in fact form really is what critics enjoy doing – pinning down a filmmaker for their distinctive traits or film school inspired mannerisms. So in many ways Moonrise Kingdom is a continuation of aesthetic, thematic and narrative preoccupations – deviations or departures along the way such as Fantastic Mr. Fox are a necessary part of the evolutionary creative process. The world of Wes Anderson is ordered, pristine and meticulously compartmentalised to create a sense of compositional harmony within the precise framing. His mise en scene is impeccably cinematic in the imaginative use of costumes, colours, props and lighting – his approach is much simpler than it appears on screen. Even less extravagant or stylistically exuberant is the camera placement which sees characters regularly moving in and out of the frame and director Anderson rather opts for the camera to literally seek out the characters who usually make their own close ups. The effect of course is reminiscent of the films of Buster Keaton in which all elements become theatrically staged and perhaps at times a little too mechanical for us to sympathise with the dilemmas faced by the characters. Another observation about Wes Anderson and his fellow contemporaries such as Sofia Coppola is not just their connection to the American new wave of the 1970s or the Nouvelle vague but to the counter culture movement of the 1960s. Strangely enough many of Anderson’s films have little, if any, kind of a link with the wider context – much of the narrative action unfolds in a reality which is somewhat disconnected from real politics. Moonrise Kingdom is set in 1965, a time in which America was a turbulent place, but this is Wes world so everything is filtered through a childlike innocence that fetishes 1960s cultural iconography. Retro fetishism can be distracting but it is such idiosyncratic details that give Anderson’s films such a whimsical and affectionate vibe. The narrative of Moonrise Kingdom is that of a melodrama in which teen angst/romance is juxtaposed to family. The plot involves two twelve year olds who fall in love and decide to run away, creating a mini panic on the island. A search headed by the local law enforcement and a troop of boy scouts leads to the revelation that the boy at the centre of the action is in fact an orphan with serious emotional problems. An aspect of the film that intrigued me the most was the mirroring device that sees the two children acting out the repressed romance between two of the adults. In this sense the narrative goes in reverse and the ending in which the two children seem to be acting out the parent’s childhood romance is beautifully judged as is the use of Benjamin Britten on the soundtrack. Overall, it’s the design that remains with you more than everything else, a design that can only come from the mind of Wes Anderson. On a final point; a great ensemble cast can also be a helpful thing to any filmmaker.

28 May 2012

THE NINE MUSES (Dir. John Akomfrah, 2010, UK)

A video essay or an experimental film?
John Akomfrah's masterly analysis of immigration is a video essay that fluently mixes archive footage with mythological musings. Although it might be useful for critics to label this as an experimental work, the emotional impact of the narrative journey which is based on Homer's Odyssey, resonated with me on a personal level - this is because my parents are immigrants and part of a South Asian diaspora. At times the wintry Alaskan landscapes juxtaposed to readings of the Odyssey makes everything seem as though it is part of a strange science fiction film. What impressed me the most was Akomfrah's sensitivity to the process of immigration that took place in the late 50s and onwards. The immigrant experience is depicted as a largely dehumanising one in which strong feelings of displacement and estrangement prevail. Simultaneously, this is a nostalgic work that draws on the personal memories of director John Akomfrah, thus the political dimensions at work find notable parallels in Britain today. Nevertheless, the non linear deconstructive narrative style makes this a challenging work that would defy any attempts at filmic categorisation. Above all, The Nine Muses is a work of real ideological imagination and demands repeated viewings before one can fully appreciate the complexities of the politics at work.

RED TAILS (Dir. Anthony Hemingway, 2012, US)

A pet project for George Lucas.
Red Tails is a revisionist war film about black fighter pilots, the Tuskegee airmen, who fought during World War II in the allied campaign against Germany. Apparently most of the studios refused to back the film and so it was left up to George Lucas to self finance the project. Red Tails is a project which was being touted by Lucas way back in the 1980s and it seems to have taken forever to get off the ground. Although Lucas could have easily walked away from this project, he proved his point by financing and distributing the film. The film has performed adequately at the US box office but had the marketing people aimed for a summer release, it is likely the film would have made more money domestically. However, the film is being released in the UK during the summer release schedule, which makes much more sense given the film's escapist nature. Red Tails is a tribute to past World War II films in which aerial combat played a major part of the action - most of the film's narrative is dominated by well executed dog fights. Featuring an all black cast, Red Tails certainly throws a fresh perspective on the war genre by celebrating the contribution of black America to the war effort. The major problem with Red Tails is the poor script which offers some terrible dialogue, underwritten characters and a plethora of war cliques that wouldn't look out of place in a low budget TV mini series. Script is everything when it comes to making a good film but Red Tails manages to deliver largely on the basis of historical revisionism. I would also question the level of directorial involvement from Anthony Hemingway given the personal nature of the project for George Lucas. Red Tails is likely to do well on DVD but it deserves a better script and perhaps more of a marketing push for it to really find that wider audience. Overall, it's an enjoyable old school war film with some cheesy lines.

21 May 2012

ELENA (Dir. Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2011, Russia) - Class Warfare

One of the posters to the film.
Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev first made an impact on the international film scene with his directorial debut The Return (2003). The Return was well received and took away the main prize at the Venice Film Festival. Being Russian and adopting an elliptical approach, comparisons to Andrei Tarkovky were inevitable but seemingly appropriate given the film’s allegorical qualities. The evasive father in The Return is played stoically by Russian theatre actor Konstantin Lavronenko who would also feature in the lead role in Zvyagintsev’s follow up The Banishment (2007). Although critics were not as unanimous in their praise for The Banishment, the film confirmed Zvyagintsev’s impressive visual mastery of framing and composition. Additionally, The Banishment extended Zvyagintsev’s interests in family and communication as key thematic preoccupations. The Banishment is a film that would sit comfortably with Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s pictorial Once Upon a time in Anatolia - both films are obsessive about documenting landscapes. Zvyagintsev’s latest film Elena departs from The Return and The Banishment in one significant way; by setting events firmly in contemporary Moscow society. In a way, Elena signals a shift away from the mythical rural to a more familiar urban concern with current social and political issues that take into account the on going economic crisis and the accelerated creation of a powerless underclass. By switching his gaze to the class divide, Elena is clearly Zvyagintsev’s most prescient film and he does so without compromising his meditative camera style. Whereas The Return and The Banishment deconstruct the patriarch, Zvyagintsev’s latest film Elena makes a woman in her late 50s the focus of the narrative. Elena has been married to Vladimir for ten years. They have both been married before and their relationship is built on needs rather than love. It soon becomes apparent from her habitual routine of looking after the house and caring for her husband that Elena is nothing more than a glorified housemaid. The apartment in which they live is a shiny postmodern space that wouldn’t look out of place in an IKEA catalogue spread. At first it appears Elena is alone except for Vladimir but her journey to the inner city ghetto of Moscow shows us her unemployed son lives with his wife and two children in a cramped apartment. Elena supports them financially and we discover that her grandson needs money so he can go to college and potentially achieve some level of social mobility. 

When Vladimir has a stroke, he not only refuses Elena’s repeated pleas to help her son but begins to make out a will which effectively sidelines Elena and empowers his estranged daughter from his first marriage. Although it is not made explicitly clear whether or not Elena genuinely loves Vladimir, she realises that having given ten years of her life to effectively look after Vladimir, she cannot simply allow the daughter to inherit everything. Vladimir’s objections to offer financial support for Elena’s son stems from a class snobbery that is vindictive, cruel and representative of the way in which the rich will do anything to protect and preserve the status quo. Elena’s decision to accelerate the death of Vladimir not only ensures her of a share of the inheritance but transforms her into a radical political entity. Elena’s heinous actions might be cataclysmic in terms of morality but Zvyagintsev’s ending in which we find Elena and her son’s family occupying the apartment as their own suggests that murder can also be a strangely revolutionary act because in this case it brings with it the promise and perhaps even fulfilment of social mobility. Why social mobility? Mainly because it was the defining characteristic of a functioning capitalist society in which class could be attained if someone worked hard enough. Social mobility has been erased today, replaced by an inexplicable economic divide that has produced an antagonistic class conflict in which a tiny elitist minority reigns supreme while the underclass continues to grow unhealthily into yet another social problem as touted by the mainstream media. If this is true then why does Zvyagintsev opt to depict the underclass in the film as equally unsympathetic as the rich? Upon occupying the apartment, Zvyagintsev trains his camera on the reaction of Elena’s apathetic son who reiterates his zombified position of the fixated armchair television spectator, underlining social mobility as an aspiration has now been taken over by the numbing diversions of a one dimensional media circus. With Elena, director Andrei Zvyagintsev certainly demonstrates he has considerable range and is not afraid of remaining apolitical. In my opinion, Zvyagintsev is one of the best filmmakers at work today in the world. If you don't believe me, just watch any of his films; they are mesmerising.

13 May 2012

A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE / BREAD & FLOWER (Dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996, Iran/France) - Memories of Dissent

The final shot of the film - the flowerpot, the girl and bread.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf has said that one of the reasons why he wanted to make A Moment of Innocence was because he simply wanted to get to the end shot of the film, one which juxtaposes a flowerpot, bread and the face of a girl in the same frame. Although I don’t want to take anything away from the rest of the film, it is largely the freeze frame end shot that transforms the film into an extraordinary work of real purity. During the turbulent and repressive years of the Shah’s reign in Iran, students became more radicalised and in the case of director Makhmalbaf, at the age of seventeen he stabbed a policeman and was jailed. The political consciousness of Makhmalbaf was forged during an era of great social and political unrest and although Makhmalbaf in the West is largely recognised as a filmmaker, his accomplishments as an artist also includes numerous novels and stories which he has published. Arguably, the work of Makhmalbaf has also given rise to a body of work that encompasses his family including most notably his daughter Samira Makhmalbaf. Perhaps one of the clearest observations is that Makhmalbaf’s work is largely autobiographical and deeply personal in that regard. A Moment of Innocence attempts to reconstruct the stabbing of the policeman, becoming a film about memory, truth and politics. However, Makhmalbaf complicates the re-staging of the event by casting the same policeman which he stabbed. By getting the policeman to play himself, the reconstruction of reality is continually questioned by the memory of the policeman, which after so many years has become somewhat tainted by feelings of resentment and nostalgia. As expected, the policeman becomes deeply involved with the reconstruction and is given the role of preparing the young boy who has been cast as the young policeman. The older, real policeman who experienced the stabbing interrogates the every action of the young actor, ridiculing him and producing some genuinely comical and reflexive moments in which Makhmalbaf’s staging is undermined as artificial. Additionally, moments of rehearsal amongst the young actors unexpectedly segue into reality, demonstrating Makhmalbaf’s desire to question memory. The film can be read largely as a cathartic attempt to come to terms with a personal trauma and by directly involving the victim of his rebellious act, Makhmalbaf tries to reconstruct history through a shared authorship in which everyone contributes to the validity of the enterprise. As for the ending, well, its a remarkable freeze frame which brings together a message of co existence of reconciliation and more importantly basic human emotions and desires that at a time of adolescence can become lost in the chaos of ideological fervour. Also by choosing to end with a freeze frame not only adds to the depth of reflexivity but works to literally capture or hold onto a past from which none of them can escape. It’s one of the great endings in the history of film, one of real grace and purity.

12 May 2012


High Sierra with Bogart & Lupino
35 SHOTS OF RHUM (Dir. Clair Denis, 2008, France/Germany) - Bearing strong similarities with Ozu’s Late Spring, this is a superior melodrama with a wonderfully evocative score by Tindersticks. This is more Jazz than cinema and the end shot of a rice cooker is magnificent.

THE RED AND THE WHITE (Dir. Milkos Jancso, 1967, Hungary) - What terrified most about this one was Jancso's ability to use endless long takes to not only prolong the horror of war but show the way war is never ending and perpetual. 

TINY FURNITURE (Dir. Lena Dunham, 2010, US) - Rising star Lena Dunham is currently in the spotlight for her new TV series HBO series Girls. Dunham is a prime example and perhaps one of the icons of the YouTube generation but her skills as a director also extend to a vibrant feel for dialogue. Tiny Furniture is a laid back observational comedy with some excellent performances. 

DON 2 (Dir. Farhan Akhtar, 2011, India) - I am the King! Yawn...another tailor made narcissistic fantasy.

BARTON FINK (Dir. Coens, 1991, US) - A key work from the Coen Brothers, Barton Fink is anchored by a terrific central performance by John Turturro. However, it is John Goodman as madman Munt who steals the show. A classic and perhaps the definitive cinematic statement on the psychosis of writer’s block.

Barton Fink
INTO THE ABYSS (Dir. Werner Herzog, 2011, US) - The subject of death row has become a popular narrative form for many filmmakers and it has inevitably transformed into a distinct genre. Herzog’s outsider point of view sees him interview a few of the men on death row, providing a disturbing insight into a destructive consumerist fuelled America.

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (Dir. Tay Garnett, 1946, US) - I forgot how long this was. Perhaps it’s too long. Both Garfield and Turner are exemplary but I somehow prefer Rafelson’s updating. Maybe its the sex, its so much more dirty with Nicholson and Lange.

I CONFESS (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1946, US) - One of Hitchcock’s weakest efforts but worth it alone for Monty Clift’s magnificent performance as the conflicted priest.

LAS ACACIAS (Dir. Pablo Giogrelli, 2011, Argentina) - A road movie without any words. Godard re translated - in this case, all you need to make a film is a vehicle, a man and a cute baby. 

MARIANNE AND JULIANE (Dir. Margarethe von Trotta, 1981, Germany) - Von Trotta’s political critique examines the attempts made by a middle class German society in the 1960s and 70s to become revolutionaries. It’s one of the best films I have come across on the political cost of trying to stay true to a radical oppositional ideology that challenges the very systems that are in place.  

Marianne & Juliane
ACCATONE (Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961, Italy)  - A hymn from the gutter. Pasolini’s most celebrated film and his most accessible in many ways is about the urban sub proletariat. A million miles away from the world of neo realism, Accatone is a radical work, which is just as important as a film like Breathless and L’Aventura. 

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2011, US)  - This is old school Spielberg, replicating the magic of the Indiana Jones films but with revolutionary eye opening motion capture technology. A proper adventure with a solid script. It’s obvious the next Indiana Jones entry needs to be animated.

INTIMATE LIGHTING (Dir. Ivan Passer, 1965, Czechoslovakia) - Ivan Passer is best known for his cult neo noir Cutter’s Way with Jeff Bridges. Before he came to America, Passer forged a name for himself with the 1960s Czech new wave. Intimate Lightning is deeply idiosyncratic.

THE AGRONOMIST (Dir. Jonathan Demme, 2003, US) - Jonathan Demme’s deeply moving account of Jean Dominique and Radio Haiti as an authentic voice of the millions of oppressed peasants locked out of the political process.  

JOE (Dir. John G. Avildsen, 1970, US) - Joe could be viewed as a template for the white male angst sub genre in which frustrations are misplaced and violence becomes the foremost outlet for a repressed social contempt. Released in 1970 and starring Peter Boyle in the lead role, Joe is a brilliant dissection of the counter culture movement.

BAARIA (Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore, 2009, Italy) - I haven't followed Tornatore's career since Cinema Paradiso but Baaria is a slice of magical realism, recalling De Sica's Miracle in Milan, mounted on an epic scale with a evocative score by Morricone and terrific cinematography by Enrico Lucidi.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (Dir. Erle C. Kenton, 1932, US) - This is the best adaptation of H. G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. With a cast featuring a devilish Charles Laughton and impressive sets including an island populated by some of the science fiction/horror genre's most unsavoury of characters, this is a lost classic which is ripe for rediscovery.

HIGH SIERRA (Dir. Raoul Walsh, 1946, US) - An out and out classic with one of Bogart's great performances as the ignoble Mad Dog Earle. High Sierra can also be interpreted as an existential thriller that influenced much of Melville's and Michael Mann's anti-heroes struggling with the metaphysics of not having enough time. With John Huston as co-writer, Ida Lupino in support and Raoul Walsh at the helm, what more could any cinephile want from a film.

KAHAANI / STORY (Dir. Sujoy Ghosh, 2012, India) - This is a perfectly executed thriller with a superb twist ending that really does work. Shot entirely in Calcutta and starring the ever dependable Vidya Balan, Kahaani puts much of mainstream Indian cinema to shame. Highly recommended.
35 Shots of Rhum - the rice cooker

6 May 2012

THE AVENGERS (Dir. Joss Whedon, 2012, US) - Stark Compromises

The Avengers Film - Failure to Launch
Joss Whedon’s Avengers has arrived with the same overhyped fanfare that is typical of most Hollywood event movies. The Avengers was released in Europe and the UK before having its domestic release in the US. The mainstream critical response was unanimous in its glowing praise for the film, with many declaring it to be an event movie that finally lived up to the marketing hype. Either most UK film critics have been blissfully ignorant or feel they need to compassionately champion certain Hollywood blockbusters in fear of becoming blacklisted by the studio elite. I could see none of the glowing praise that was heaped on the film by a film critic such as The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. Even the blogosphere has been resoundingly celebratory of Whedon’s comic book achievements. Unfortunately I didn’t feel the same way about the film and was in many ways disappointed with the end product. It was a film I was looking forward given my faith in Whedon as an interesting writer and also being a fan of his science fiction work including the sorely underrated Firefly TV series and the witty hybrid Serenity, I was expecting a competent comic book action film. Here are some thoughts on the film:

It’s just noise. Lots of it. And its really fucking LOUD! (Don't know why Hollywood blockbusters think noise is part of the spectacle of film; it's clearly not unless you are hoping to paper over the cracks)

The dialogue may have looked good enough on paper but when spoken by the likes of Chris Evans, much of it falls flat.

It’s too long. Okay, that may seem like a trivial point but length is tied to quality, and given the lack of quality on display, the lengthy running time made it all seem spectacularly boring.

You have Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. in the cast but they are surrounded by whimpering fools. The performances are uniformly terrible and that means you rarely sympathise with any of the characters.

A great or even good comic book film is usually made significantly better than it seems by a catchy and memorable score or even theme in some cases. The score, which is pedestrian to say the least, doesn’t matter anyway because its drowned out by the constant din made by the avengers.

A solid story and evidence of a workable plot-line usually helps when trying to navigate through the narrative chaos - a portal opening in the skyline of New York is neither original or imaginative.

At times it felt like one long jingoistic ad for American imperialism; New York is under threat again, we must band together, Captain America you patrol ground zero, and let’s fight for the common good because we don’t believe in nuclear deterrence. If Loki is the Other then what exactly does he represent or symbolise in terms of a foreign threat?

The final set piece is just chaos and the action is poorly co-ordinated & choreographed.

Representing India as a poverty infested third world country is simply regressive and yet again validates the way American cinema and Hollywood promotes India as an inferior and exotic place.

This film was made with 12 year old boys in mind. Everything else is secondary.

The Avengers is not good enough to join the company of the following comic book film adaptations: The Hulk (Ang Lee version), Nolan's Batman films, Dick Tracy, The X Men films (excluding The Last Stand), The first 3 Superman films, Hellboy 1 & 2