Catfish: Virtual Vérité

16 Jan

Catfish, a documentary in which filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost film the developing relationship of Ariel’s brother, Nev, with a family he met online through Facebook, unleashed massive debate about its authenticity. To put that one to bed, here’s David Calhoun, writing in Time Out “Some have accused Joost and the Schulman brothers of spinning a yarn. Personally, I think that reduces the very real debates the film raises to do with film-making ethics, the honesty of storytelling, the condescension with which the urbane view the provincial and the growing divide between the technologically sophisticated and technologically foolish.

If you begin with the premise that all films, docs and dramas, are constructs of one sort or another and it’s the how and why that’s important, you’ll have fun pulling this apart. Just don’t expect the filmmakers to join you at that level.’

I do, however, disagree with his comment that the filmmakers are ‘brandishing the falsest of sympathetic smiles’. I found the film funny, moving and deeply humane. And I’m not sure that the film deals with ‘the condescension with which the urban view the provincial’ so much as their lack of awareness. Nev in particular – admittedly I’m less sure about his brother and Joost – becomes increasingly uncomfortable and several times claims he’d prefer to stop filming.

This brings us neatly on to boundaries and Catfish’s fascinating investigation of them. In a series of Russian doll layering of themes and tropes, the line between fact and fiction – the ‘am I, aren’t I?’ teasing of the plot neatly reflects that of the authenticity of the film itself – and the line between our public and private selves is unpicked. Similarly, the extent to which we construct ourselves and our reality – both publicly and privately – through storytelling, offers a further commentary on the film-making process. Other boundaries too are highlighted: that between urban and rural, when Nev questions what future his relationship with Megan, the eldest daughter who lives in rural Michigan, could have. Or, most painfully, what happens when someone with an ‘access all areas’ cultural pass meets someone whose nose is still pressed against the glass.

Above all, the film raises some interesting questions about technology’s ability to increase the cultural parameters of our lives. Is the access it provides genuine? And to what extent can it be considered a double-edged sword? Does the virtual (close analysis of that word might prove instructive) access it offers only increase awareness of exclusion? What I love is the way these and other big questions are smuggled in on the back of a slight plot and a focus on the apparently inconsequential and everyday.

One particularly touching, funny (in a squirming kind of a way) scene has Nev reading out a text exchange with Megan. As these become raunchier, albeit in a pretty innocent, cheesy way, Nev retreats under the bed-clothes to cover his embarrassment. This scene, and the film as a whole, act to remind us that we don’t yet know the directions this new technology will take us, or the etiquette it might need.  And, while it doesn’t claim to have the answers, it deserves a high mark for showing its creative working out of the problems.

Of Gods and Men, ritual and magic

11 Jan

Loosely based on the life of a group of French Cistercian monks living in Algeria in the 1990s, Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des Dieux) won the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Beautifully shot, directed (by Xavier Beauvois) and acted, it’s a wonderful mix of perfectly cast characters.

My particular favourite (although it was difficult to choose) is the wonderful, wise old bird Frère Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the order’s doctor. Clad in ribbed cardigan and beanie, he ministers to the local villagers and discusses life and love – both spiritual and temporal. However, as religious tensions in the area heighten and the violence increases, the monks must decide whether to leave their home. A quote from Pascal’s pensées, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction” could, suggests Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian apply to the monks, ‘secretly infatuated with the idea of a martyrdom that will fan the flames of violence for generations to come’ as much as the local mujahideen.

I’d argue, however, that the film specifically discounts this option. It takes pains to show the monks grappling with their motives and the struggle of each to reach a decision. The keyword here is struggle. Although stylistically the film is contemplative, the monks’ spirituality is anything but. Just how physical this struggle can be we see, or rather hear, through the cries to God of the youngest of the monks, Frère Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), alone in his cell. Belief, as portrayed in the film, is a powerful, dynamic force which depends on order and ritual if it is to be contained. (As a whole, the film could also be read as a refutation of Pascal’s quote: replacing the word ‘evil’ with ‘good’.)

Bradshaw also draws attention to ‘a cynical police chief, irritably preparing to wash his hands of the imminent bloodbath [who] tells Christian: “I blame French colonisation for not letting Algeria grow up.”’ Rather than cynicism though, the scene offers some vital context. I felt sympathy for the administrator (actually a local official rather than a police chief), caught as he was between a rock and a hard place. The scene draws attention to France’s colonial past, without claiming any easy answers. It complicates our response to the monks by providing a political and historical context – and perhaps even provides an echo of the phrase ‘the sins of the father…’.

Rituals are the spine of the film: the rituals of the land, or those of the villagers, are as carefully observed as those of the monks’ religious life. There are beautiful scenes of tending the land through the seasons. And it is no coincidence that the monastery keeps bees – a symbol of a community living in productive order and harmony. Ritual, representing beauty, order and life, is opposed to violence, disorder and death. But the film does not reduce this to a choice of either / or. Rather the struggle (that word again) lies in achieving balance.

The many panning shots seems to reinforce this holistic sense and the need to see the bigger picture.  Similarly, their control brilliantly suggests the  control of emotion. The photography, and in particular the use of colours (subtle enough to explore the amazing variety of tones possible in cream / white / grey) is stunning. One breathtakingly beautiful shot pans over the pale walls of the chapel before introducing a splash of colour (perhaps another echo of the links between the temporal and spiritual): the russet, earthy hue of Luc’s cardigan.

The final scene, after the monks have been kidnapped (by terrorists or the army – the actual events are still contested) shows them helping one another  through snowy mountains. For me it brought to mind Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where Hans Castorp awakes from a dream of being trapped in a blizzard. Contemplating the meaning, he concludes “because of charity and love, man should never allow death to rule one’s thoughts.” A tenet brought to life by the monks and echoed by Luc’s, ‘I am not afraid of the terrorists and even less of the army. I am not afraid of death either, I am a free man.’

Andrei Rublev – masterpiece or the Tsar’s new clothes?

8 Jan

At least 15 years ago I was talking films (it’s generally a fail-safe filter) with a new acquaintance, whose favourite was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Shamefully, at the time I hadn’t seen a single Tarkovsky film and, even more shamefully, I’m not fully confident I’d even heard of him.  So I jumped, admittedly somewhat belatedly, at the chance to make amends when the Abbeygate Picturehouse screened Andrei Rublev just before Christmas.

Tarkovsky’s 1966 film, loosely based on the life of the fifteenth century Russian icon painter, was voted joint second in a Guardian/Observer critics’ poll of ‘the greatest films ever made’ in October 2010. (For the curious it was beaten by Chinatown.) Add the 85 reviews on IMDB, where words such as ‘masterpiece’ crop up regularly, and I was expecting a corker.

So, having waited so long and after such a build-up, what did I think? It’s undoubtedly powerful, fascinating and challenging film-making. It’s also beautiful in the fullest sense – Tarkovsky doesn’t flinch from the ugliness and cruelty of medieval Russia. And, amazingly, at 3 hours (I saw the UK 2004 re-release – at 183 mins it’s one of the shorter versions) didn’t drag.

I admire, too, that he’s unafraid to deal with big subjects: the meaning of art and faith or the artist’s position in society. And I’d definitely be interested in reading up about his work. But, if you’re asking me if I liked it and would I hurry to another of his films, at the risk of having my Brownie film-buff badge ripped from my sleeve, well I’d have to say no.

However, I didn’t like Chinatown either, so what do I know? And don’t listen to me – here’s Ingmar Bergmann, writing in The Magic Lantern: “Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream… That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn’t explain. What should he explain anyhow?

Fellini, Kurosawa and Bunuel move in the same fields as Tarkovsky. Antonioni was on his way, but expired, suffocated by his own tediousness. Melies was always there without having to think about it. He was a magician by profession.”

I could have kissed Bergmann for his description of Antonioni (sweet revenge for excruciating hours spent watching his films!) and it’s true, Tarkovsky is in a different league. But he’s a director who needs (and, I’m sure, rewards) more intellectual input than I gave on a snowy December afternoon. So don’t be put off – particularly if film theory is your bag. Check out the reviews on IMDB, many of which are brilliantly insightful, see the film and make up your own mind.

Somewhere, Chekhov & Coppola

3 Jan

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit to it after Mark Kermode’s full-blown rant (well worth checking out – hugely entertaining, pertinent and a fab Hotel California anaology!) but I enjoyed Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Admittedly, unlike the excellent Lost in Translation, I wasn’t blown away and I certainly wasn’t on the edge of my seat fretting about what became of Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (an excellent Elle Fanning) and the rest of the cast. But might this be the point?

Chekhov claimed that audiences weren’t supposed to identify with his characters, but to be annoyed by them; to shriek at Olga, Maria and Irina to stop faffing and just get the darn train to Moscow. The difficulty, however, lies in balancing this with the use of a well-known, able cast. Careful handling is needed if the audience is to be challenged to change their lives rather than simply feel justified in their passivity. ‘But if X [insert actor of choice], is ground down by their life, what chance do I have?’ It could be argued, then, that Coppola and her cast have negotiated this balancing act with success.

Equally, I agree with Mark Kermode that the pole-dancing scenes go on way too long and are indisputably boring, but maybe this is intentional. The scenes aren’t salacious, or sexy, or even interestingly sleazy: they’re simply dull. And that the dancers and Johnny appear as bored as we are is surely a more effective critique than portraying the women as either victims or somehow empowered by their role.

David Denby in the New Yorker comments that ‘the funk of a noodling movie star is hardly a revelation of the absurdity of the human condition’. And David Edelstein writes ‘Coppola’s poor-rich-girl vision is certainly consistent, although you sometimes wonder if she knows that hers is not the universal human condition.’ I’d argue, however, that the vacuousness of the film world that Coppola portrays does filter down through society, so there are lessons to extrapolate. And while the frustration we feel with Johnny won’t bring the star system crashing down overnight, it might at least lead to some healthy questioning.

The fact that we don’t identify – or particularly engage – with the characters does make this a coolly intellectual rather than emotional working out of the problem, but this isn’t necessarily a criticism. Coppola’s minimalist approach and Harris Savides’ stunning cinematography manage both to support this coolness and create the heart of the film. The film’s beauty offers the emotional engagement we don’t get from the cast and is, finally, the antidote to the emptiness at the heart of Johnny’s world.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest

7 Dec

I’m usually rubbish at sequels, prequels or, to be honest, even TV series. With the memory of a goldfish, I need notes or a long-suffering friend if I’m to keep pace. I’m also pretty rubbish at violence unless it’s fast paced and of the Kick Ass variety, particularly when it’s sexual violence. So why did I love The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, (Män som hatar kvinnor), The Girl who Played with Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes) so much? And why am I feeling slightly bereft at their conclusion?

The sheer quality of the characters plays a major part, for which credit must go to both author and actors. Although Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomkvist and Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander stand out, the trilogy is a bravura piece of ensemble acting. The films are chock-a-block with interesting characters such as Lisbeth’s fellow hacker Plague, or boss of Milton Security Dragan Armansky. Love them or loathe them, there wasn’t a single character who I didn’t care passionately about.

What Cath Clarke in the Guardian calls ‘dreary TV drabness’ I found refreshingly realistic compared to Hollywood blockbusters. (Talking of Hollywood I’m intrigued by the remake, although I really can’t believe it’ll top the original.) The computer hacking carried out by Lisbeth and Plague, or the surveillance methods of Milton Security were as exciting – perhaps because more believable – than many a car chase or explosion.

Admittedly I struggled with the level of violence against women (and how graphically it was portrayed), particularly in the first part. Although realising the original title was Men Who Hate Women may have helped. The trilogy, however, is strongly moral, focusing on the fault lines that run through Swedish society. A society that is less tolerant and more misogynistic than we tend to think – see, for example, the problems of Stieg Larsson’s common-law wife, Eva Gabrielsson. The abuse Lisbeth suffers at the hands of her doctor and legal guardian parallels that received from her father, as the complex relationship between state and family, public and private, is teased out. (See the Opinionator blog for some interesting thoughts on this.)

I don’t claim that the films are flawless. The middle section didn’t really work as a stand-alone film, and the Niedermann (Micke Spreitz) storyline in the last section felt tagged on. But the fact that despite the flaws and some pretty impressive running times (152 minutes, 129 minutes and 147 minutes respectively) my interest never flagged says a lot.

Although The Guardian excelled itself in the perfunctoriness of its reviews (here’s Peter Bradshaw on The Girl Who Played With Fire, “Michael Nyqvist returns as investigative reporter Mikael, with the mutton-dressed-as-lamb style in leather jacket and hair colour.” A case of the lady does protest too much?) rather than dreary I found it heartening to come across filmmakers who respect their audience and trust their cast. It’s not often that viewers are credited with attention spans long enough to sustain interest through character and plot alone. And I, for one, am grateful.

Yes, the films are dark, and they don’t shy away from showing that darkness graphically, but the final message is one of optimism: goodness (in the shape of a passion for justice, intelligence, compassion, resilience and sheer guts) really can make a difference. A message borne out by the final scene, which is both touching and deliciously understated.

Cuckoo preview with director Q&A

3 Dec

In 2004, brothers Richard and Tony Bracewell set up Norwich-based Punk Cinema to make independent British films. Their latest production Cuckoo, a creepy thriller about sound, is released 17th December 2011. Those in East Anglia, however, can enjoy a sneak preview at 6pm on Thursday 16th December at the Abbeygate Picturehouse in Bury St Edmunds, followed by a Q&A with writer/director Richard Bracewell.

Shot on location in London and on set in Norfolk, Cuckoo stars Richard E. Grant, Laura Fraser, Tamsin Greig and award-winning jungle/drum & bass artist Adam Fenton. The production notes describe Cuckoo as about ‘lies, paranoia and point of view… Alone in her flat, Polly struggles to keep her grip on reality. Mysterious sounds surround her, voices in the darkness, whispers of deceit. Polly knows she’s not cuckoo, but why won’t the noises go away?

‘A darkly atmospheric and compelling story of deception and intrigue… [with] a haunting soundtrack from BAFTA nominee Andrew Hewitt, Cuckoo teases and provokes as it heads towards its dramatic and shocking climax.’

You can view the trailer or read more about the film, including an interview with the director, in the production notes on distributor Verve pictures‘ website.

The Q&A will be hosted by local movie fanatic and blogger The Movie Evangelist.

Chico and Rita – style or substance?

26 Nov

I confess to having massive expectations for Chico and Rita. Not only do I love animation and it came highly recommended by people I respect, but I also completely fell for its directors, Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, on BBC2’s the Culture Show. Plus I lived in Spain in the early nineties when Mariscal’s Bar-cel-ona logo and Olympic mascot, Cobi, were ubiquitous and, as boleros enjoyed a revival, Los Panchos played in every bar.

And on the whole I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a luscious, gorgeous film with a soundtrack (courtesy of Cuban composer Bebo Valdés) to die for and a humour I wasn’t expecting – in particular during the scenes in the tenement where Chico lives. The repartee amongst his neighbours provides some genuinely lol moments such as, for example, a neighbour defending his revolutionary credentials after criticising a power cut: ‘But I was reading Granma, and had just got to the interesting bit’!

Talking of translation (it took me a second to remember Granma is the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party and not just a variant of grandma) I’d have preferred to see Ramon’s advice  to Chico that he’s ‘enchochado’ translated as ‘in lust’ rather than ‘in love’ – ‘chocho’ being a (non-offensive) term for the female genitals.

The scenes in the tenement also touch on another aspect of the film I liked – its politics are lightly worn but deeply felt. When the action switches to Rita’s career in the USA not only is the obvious target of racial segregation criticised, but there are also visual references to the less blatant racism of the exoticising of, amongst others, Josephine Baker and Carmen Miranda.

Blog on the box, however, calls Chico and Rita ‘one of the most profoundly moving films of the year, a heart-wrenching love story’ and I have to disagree. Although a feast for the senses, the narrative fails to grip. It’s unevenly paced and contains some check-your-watch longueurs. And, although I did shed three tears at the end (I counted), I was annoyed with myself for doing so.

But perhaps boleros always have prided themselves on being a triumph of sentiment over intellect: the style is the substance. As Trueba comments on the film’s website: ‘For me Chico & Rita is a song, a romantic song, a bolero. It’s the story of two young people in Cuba at the end of the 40s, and how life gets them together and separates them like in a song. It’s a film full of music and love and sensuality and colour.’

A paean to both directors’ passion for Cuba and its music, somewhat disappointingly Chico and Rita never felt more than the sum of its parts – as gorgeous as those parts were. As they’re passions I share it still earns 4 out of 5 stars, but if you want to be profoundly moved seek out Mary and Max.