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Marty ‘Quits’ Film… But Not Like That

29 Jun

I’ve got to admit that when I saw that Martin Scorsese was apparently ‘quitting film’ I nearly had a minor heart attack – Marty has shaped a lot of my film experience and his enthusiasm for the medium and auteur status was part of the reason I developed a strong interest in the whole area. Luckily, it was all a little bit misleading. What was actually the case was that Marty was abandoning film reel in favour of digital, not the practise of making film. Well, there’s a sigh of relief!

It’s sad though that a form of capturing film that has been used for over a hundred years is losing its biggest champion. Scorsese has been restoring old fim stock and classics such as The Red Shoes for posterity, but it seems that even he thinks that it’s a lost cause in the age of digital technology. His long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker said: “The number of prints that are now being made for release has just gone down, and it would appear that the theatres have converted so quickly to digital.” Scorsese’s last picture, Hugo, was, perhaps ironically, a film about the birth of cinema that was shot in digital and it seems as though he has no intentions of giving up digital now (although he is abandoning 3D after his foray with Hugo, thank God) – he’s using the format to shoot his latest movie The Wolf of Wall Street, which starts production in August.

It’s all a bit sad but it seems like a strangely familiar story…

Oh yes, that’s right. There was a mass abandoning of CDs and vinyl when the internet and newer technologies took over the music industry, and everyone thought that the old formats would die. But events such as Record Store Day, led by stores, bands and labels such as Rough Trade, have increased the nostalgia and demand for the vinyl format and the market is growing. Albeit, it’s never likely to take over the internet and digital media as a way of consuming and buying music but it shows that people never really forget what came in the past.

Now, obviously people aren’t going to have piles of film reels lying around their houses and a musty old film projector to watch them in their own homes, but I daresay within a while there’ll be events dedicated to showing old film reels, shunning the old ways. A new generation of directors might even want to create their work on this format to give a more ‘authentic’ or ‘classic’ feel.

Perhaps then, despite this rather sad news that potentially marks the end of an era, there’s a lot of hope that film reels won’t be forgotten about in the digital age. It might have lost one of its last remaining champions but it could well be back in the future.


Brace Yourselves: It’s Katy Perry, the Movie

28 Jun

It was a while ago now – or at least it thankfully feels like it – since I was standing in the queue at my local multiplex surrounded by people of my own age actually excited about getting their hands on tickets for the Justin Bieber movie, ‘Never Say Never’. Well, I said never and will continue to do so as long as the helmet-haired popstrel continues to blind girls and young women with bland factory-pop. But now a bigger threat lurks around the corner, one that could cause as much destruction to the credibility of a whole generation of music listeners as a Decepticon throwing a wobbly in downtown LA. I’m talking about… this!

Yep, Katy Perry is releasing a movie. Gawd help us all. As if her video to the song ‘Part of Me’ wasn’t enough, with its very loosely veiled pro-army propaganda, now Ms. Perry is intent on continuing her world domination plan by invading our cinema screens and coming out of them via the use of 3D.

Oh, Katy… She’s a star that you almost want to like, thanks to her slightly quirky take on pop that feels much more believable than the contrivance of Lady Gaga, but she’s been on a downward spiral for a while. As if Teenage Dream didn’t pump out enough hits, Perry added more to it and re-released it, calling it The Complete Confection (which is almost as sickening to say as it is to think about). Now there’s the movie, focusing on all aspects of the production of Teenage Dream, her background and her divorce from Russell Brand; because that’s what draws the OK and Heat readers in, a bit of scandal. Maybe seeing Katy cry on screen will melt more hearts and add more people to her army of fans (cue malevolent laugh).

You know you’ve got a money-making scheme on your hands, though, when your campaign sponsor is… wait for it… Pepsi. Well, okay, not quite Coca-Cola or MacDonald’s but still a massive corporation whose latest tagline – ‘Live For Now’ – seems to fit Perry’s persona and the film’s own tagline perfectly. It seems that there’s nothing and no-one that can stop Perry from having a mega-hit on her hands with this movie, but it’s a sorry state of affairs when our screens have to be filled up with this kind of profit-making venture, once again shoving indie productions (and productions that have just had a lot of work and thought put into them) into the realms of obscurity. Hopefully this really will be the last we’ll see of Perry’s Teenage Dream cycle as she claims… but because we can’t be left alone by stars for more than two minutes (I’m looking at you Rihanna and your album-ever-nine-months turnover) we can unfortunately expect her to be back very very soon.

Karenina and Les Mis: Battle of the Classics

25 Jun

It’s barely past the halfway point of this year, and already there’s some flittering buzz over who might be picked for next year’s Oscars. And if this article is anything to go by, then it’ll be a battle between two extravagant costume dramas as opposed to the quirky charms and nostalgia of The Artist.

It’ll be frocks at dawn when Anna Karenina and Les Miserables face off against each other. In the left corner we have Joe Wright (of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement fame) directing Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Johnson in a grand adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel. In the right corner we have Tom Hooper (of The King’s Speech fame) directing Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman in an, er, adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel.

I’m starting to wonder if Hollywood has good ideas anymore. To be fair, Wright has directed two movies that isn’t adapted from a novel (Hanna and The Soloist) but Hooper’s last film was equally based on nostalgia and aimed squarely at the type of audience who would lap up Les Mis with relish. Aside from this, Les Mis is almost too well known as a successful musical, while Karenina has already been adapted into film a massive twelve times – that’s twelve times, people, double figures. I’m not sure that plonking Keira Knightley in the role will add anything to the wealth of performances we have out there. Then again, I’m not sure plonking Keira Knightley in any role really adds anything to a movie – she has ‘the Keira Knightley face’ and not a lot else. Oh, but she did a bit of gurning in A Dangerous Method to look ‘tortured’; not sure that’ll be helpful with Anna though.

As for Les Mis, it’s been said that Anne Hathaway has some raw power as factory worker Fantine (in the teaser trailer she sings ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ which won people over). That’s all good and well, and I’m sure the film will look beautiful, will be well-acted and feel like a genuinely solid costume drama, but it’s just that little bit depressing that so much should be put into it that smaller indie movies that could be getting a look-in might be completely blown away by the extravagance on show in both Karenina and Les Mis.

If you look at the winners of the Best Picture Oscar in the last five years, four of them were adapted from other sources or real life: No Country For Old Men took as its source material Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name, The Hurt Locker was based on the journals of journalist Mark Boal, The King’s Speech revolved around the true story of George VI and The Departed was mostly adapted from successful Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (which is actually a better film – I still think Marty won the Oscar because he was robbed in the past).

So, while the competition between Karenina and Les Mis will undoubtedly be huge (both in terms of critical and commercial success), it would still be nice to see just a little bit less hype about adaptations. Particularly ones that have already been done twelve times before – yes, I will keep stressing that point. Personally, if it came down to the pair then I would say Les Mis has a better chance of succeeding: its cast seems more solid and star-studded (with added facial movements!), its story is more familiar to a bigger audience and it has at least one song that everyone seems to know. But there’s always room for a surprise…

Review // I Wish I Knew (2010)

8 Feb

Two years ago, Shanghai hosted the World’s Fair Expo and to help with some publicity and celebrate the historic moment, film-maker Jia Zhang-ke was commissioned to create a film commemorating the eventful year and consolidate some of the city’s turbulent past. What resulted was I Wish I Knew, a documentary spanning time and place to create a map of one of China’s most famous cities.

During the film, a number of famous Shanghainese are interviewed and these insightful and personal stories sit alongside a lyrical, very loosely narrative journey of a young woman through the city in 2009 and 2010. Along the way we see the changing landscape of the city and the political, social and cultural events that have led up to the upcoming Expo.

The most positive aspect of this film is the interviewees themselves: they are truly illuminating and they seem to truly love Shanghai despite its troubled history and their often poignant stories of life during the Cultural Revolution and before. Many are children of the most important figures in the city’s history, such as Du Meiru, the daughter of Du Yuesheng, a famous gang leader in the 1920s, and Yang Xiaofu, the son of Yang Xingfu, a founder of China’s civil rights movement and economist who was assassinated in 1933. Zhang-ke never imposes questions about the city, even though the landscape itself – its demolition and remoulding into a modern high-rise metropolis – is as much of an important character as the people interviewed. Instead, the anecdotes and histories offered by the interviewees colours the city in: at the beginning of the film Shanghai seems grey and stripped of vibrancy but as the film progresses and the people become slightly more positive in tone, colour seems to seep into the landscape, culminating in shots of the Expo site in all its fabulous modernity, blue skies and ever-productive workers.

It is unfortunate then that this documentary is so frustrating to watch as a whole. Firstly, Zhang-ke’s directing attempts to be artful to the point of being pretentious. Some interviewees are framed in ways that are distracting from what they are saying. A man who worked with Antonioni while he worked on a documentary on China (whose name unfortunately escapes me at this point) is filmed in a tea house through traditional windows, talking of censorship, and of stereotyping. Zhang-ke did not need to frame him in this manner to enhance his point about Antonioni’s depiction of Chinese people: the man just had to talk. Then there are the shots of a nameless young woman traversing the streets of Shanghai. What is her function, exactly? I could argue that her presence in the film represents that of an absorber of experiences: as she walks around, and more stories are added to the film’s canon she is meant to be enlightened, eventually leading her to the Expo and a new Shanghai. I could also argue that her presence gives a loose narrative of a wanderer who encounters the many faces of Shanghai, tying together the highly contrasting images of the city that Zhang-ke presents. But I cannot fathom it entirely: to my mind she is not necessary in developing a sense of what Shanghai was and now is, and appears relatively infrequently in the course of the two hours. Perhaps this is further evidence of Zhang-ke’s attempt to make I Wish I Knew more artistic than it truly needs to be.

But the biggest problem, to my mind, is the lack of thematic and temporal focus that this film presents. We are given a whole host of city images, which we can interpret as we please, with some guidance from people who lived through historical events. However, as the film progresses there is an increasing focus on the films of Shanghai and on other film-makers themselves. As interesting as the stories of Wang Toon and Hou Hsiao-Hsien are, they don’t seem to sit quite rightly with the stories of politics and societal upheaval during the cultural revolution. Zhang-ke includes images of films from this period and their strong, pro-Communist stance, including Spring in a Small Town, widely regarded as one of China’s greatest films as well as clips from Wong Kar-Wai. Cinema does, of course, have a massive part to play in documenting and reflecting the cultural and societal changes of the last 100 or so years, but its inclusion here turns I Wish I Knew into a different beast, a film about film, for a good little while. Then it once again abandons this in favour of stories about economics, migration and education in the latter-day.

This movement to the present leaves me with one final gripe about this film. For the most part, the film focuses on the past and often talks about the Maoist period, the politics and economics of the time and the geography of Shanghai but there is a rather inexplicable shift from the end of the Cultural Revolution to the late 80s and a small economic boom (at least for the sole man who represents this period of time). It then moves to the 2000s and the phenomenon of Han Han, the revered blogger, writer and rally driver. As much as Han Han is interesting and witty – despite being dragged into the middle of a racecourse by Zhang-ke in a piece of obvious imagery – it leaves you wondering how the leap was made. Doesn’t this shift seem to say that between the late 80s and now Han Han is the only good or productive person Shanghai could muster? Isn’t this a diminishing of the achievements of Shanghai in overcoming great hardship from both internal and external forces that Zhang-ke has attempted to establish through the rest of the film?

It must be said that despite these apparent failings, I Wish I Knew is actually very interesting for anyone wanting to know more about Shanghai’s history from the perspective of people who have lived through its monumental cultural changes. As a final celebration of Shanghai’s modern vision, Zhang-ke redeems himself with shots of people riding the train, using their mobile phones and being integrated into modernity, a symbol of the city’s forward-thinking ideology.

Review // The Descendants (2012)

8 Feb

Fans of director Alexander Payne have been a patient bunch. His last film, the critically acclaimed, wonderfully warm and witty Sideways, was released eight years ago. Since then it’s been a long wait for the follow-up but The Descendants lives up to every expectation you could hope for in a Payne film.

Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is struggling to cope with the responsibility of looking after his two daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) when his wife is left in a coma after being in a boating accident. It’s not long before Matt learns that his wife will die, and the pressure of trying to secure a land deal and the revelation that his wife was having an affair helps to bring the family together in unexpected ways.

With the exception of Election, none of Payne’s films are laugh-a-minute comedy romps and the shadow of death and grief hangs heavily over The Descendants, perhaps even more so than the bittersweet About Schmidt. However, despite the heavy subjects lying at the core of the film, the events and excellent screenplay often lighten the mood and bring witty relief. Even Payne’s direction lends an airy tone to much of the film – quick, quirky close-ups of building projects and some occasionally inventive editing lighten the mood, while long, languid shots of the Hawaiian landscape help you appreciate and ponder upon the beauty and urbanisation of the four islands, helping the audience to interact more with Matt’s involvement in the land deal. Even the traditional music helps to connect with this exotic and still mysterious place, helping to make the landscape a leading character in the movie.

In terms of characterisation, George Clooney’s star quality could have detracted from the sympathy the audience needs to feel for Matt, but the layers of his real-life persona seem to be stripped away and replaced by someone entirely believable. Clooney’s performance is pitch-perfect and he moves comfortably from try-hard dad to grief-stricken husband. His comic timing is also better than ever: his comedy credentials have been proved previously, most notably in Coen Brothers movies like Oh Brother Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading, but here he turns everyday, sometimes throwaway comments into quietly humorous remarks. That said, despite Clooney’s presence and dominance over the film, the supporting roles are also excellently acted. Amara Miller as Scottie and Nick Krause as Alexandra’s best friend Sid provide the extra comic relief: they are often handed hilarious gems and the exchanges between Clooney and Krause provide some of the best scenes in the film.

Some critics, however, say that the film is ingrained with subtle misogyny, that Matt is a man suffering because of women. Of course, some of this feeling comes from Payne himself. All of his movies to a greater or lesser extent feature women who complicate the lives of the men around them, from the devilish Tracy Flick in Election to Schmidt’s estranged wife in About Schmidt. But it has to be pointed out that although Matt seems to resent his wife at some points, he also comes to terms with his own failings during the course of the film. In a way, his dying wife isn’t what causes chaos in this film, unlike other Payne works, but instead manages to restore harmony without even knowing it.

The Descendants is a darker prospect than Sideways, but still maintains an uplifting feel through the entire length. It is a humorous bit often touching examination of what it means to be a family, whether it be the immediate or the ancestors, and the connection people can make with each other and the past in difficult circumstances. It may have been a long wait since Payne’s last film, but this beautifully crafted tale more than makes up for the absence.

This post was originally written by me for FreedomSpark

Review // Le Corbeau (1943)

29 Jan

If you’re a filmmaker in German-occupied France, what do you do? The first option is to give up and find a career that wouldn’t be interfered with as much as the movie industry. But for Henri-Georges Clouzot and many other filmmakers, giving up on the artform was not an option. So there was a bit of a conundrum: either try and cobble the money together to attempt to make a movie independently – very difficult in a studio system – or turn to the Germans for funding. So Clouzot did just that, and the most famous product was The Raven, or Le Corbeau.

Ice-cold doctor Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) is probably handing illegal abortions to pregnant women, and having two simultaneous affairs, one with his superior’s young wife Laura (Micheline Frencay) and another with beautiful and disabled Denise (Ginette Leclerc). But in the small town where he lives and works, people start receiving poison-pen letters from someone named ‘Le Corbeau.’ Soon the whole town becomes a boiling pot of suspicion, lies, deceit and ill-tempered bickering, while Germain becomes increasingly determined to find the one who calls themselves the Raven.

If we focus on the movie itself, then it’s clear that this is a good prototype for film-noir: shady characters, femme fatales and suspicions and shadows everywhere you look. The only thing you don’t get is lingering close-ups and star charisma. These people are filmed by Clouzot in an almost fly-on-the-wall manner, a typically French style of cinematography that lets the actors move around and breathe instead of being statuettes. In many ways this makes the film more real, bridging the gap between the poetic realism of the 30s and the noir of the late 40s and 50s.

But unlike in noir, our hero isn’t someone drawn in by devious women. Germain knows what he’s doing, and the secrets that are revealed about him are not shocking and can barely rouse any sympathy from the viewer. He’s a man who is tortured, but hard to warm to, making the film more difficult to watch: one sympathetic character would help to alleviate the veil of impending doom that clings to every wall in every room. The shadows start to seem more looming and the fatalism never goes away, even when someone is imprisoned for being Le Corbeau. It does, however, keep you guessing: as a mystery it is quite intriguing and the answer to who Le Corbeau is never reveals itself properly until the denouement. My guess seemed to be heading in a good direction, but then I was a bit disappointed to learn that my investigative skills were a bit lacking. I won’t be becoming a private detective anytime soon.

The theme of suspicion, though, is what really drives this film. The question of who Le Corbeau is really doesn’t matter in the end and it barely mattered at the time. When it was released in France in 1943, Le Corbeau was given hideous reviews, with critics calling it a hateful and spiteful piece of cinema that could only spark unrest amongst small communities. They much preferred glossy productions that showed France to be a massive community of people working in secret to rally against the Germans.

But there’s two potential reasons why Le Corbeau doesn’t play the game: firstly, this is a movie distributed by Continental. Continental were funded by the Germans and, let’s face it, would they really release a film that criticised the occupation? Personally, I think the opening statement of “a small town… anywhere” is a good indication of the general geographical differences in France at the time. The provinces, as we are supposed to guess Le Corbeau is set in, were a world away from Paris and its cosmopolitan feel – at the time it was described as ‘Paris and the surrounding desert.’ Maybe this is why the critics didn’t get the whole idea of suspicion surrounding the film: it was easier to be impersonal in the capital city, communities tend not to be so close in larger connobations. But, in a small town, as it is often made clear in the film, everyone knows everyone else. They might not know all of their business, but as Clouzot makes hauntingly clear, lives can be ruined by lies and spiteful people. The provincial nature of the film makes the claustrophobia and sense of disquiet all the more intense.

Le Corbeau may have been slated at the time of its release, but it is perhaps one of the few films that thoroughly reveals the tension and unease people had to live with during the occupation. It has stood the test of time more than the rallying calls that the critics loved, though Clouzot and some of the other crew were banned from filming after France’s liberation, a sign of how tough decisions like joining German-led Continental had a huge impact on the face of French film to come (the emergent cinema du papa that Francois Truffaut would famously attack in Cahiers du Cinema). It is uncomfortable viewing, especially when considering what was happening at the time, but it is still wonderfully crafted and acted. Just don’t be expect to be uplifted by the end.

Classicism: The By-Word For the 2012 Oscars

25 Jan

Watching the nominations for the 2012 Academy Awards yesterday, it dawned on me that there’s a very distinct theme running through this year’s nominees. I thought of a decent (though perhaps not 100% accurate word if you’re gonna get really technical!) word to sum this up: classicism.

Let’s take the nominees for Best Picture first. Now, let’s look at what must be the front-runners for this prize. Since 1980, every winner of Best Picture has gained at least a nomination in the Best Editing category too – lending weight to my constant argument that the editing of a film is perhaps one of the most important aspects of making a good movie. So using this formula we can whittle it down to The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo and Moneyball. In true Rolf Harris style: can you guess what it is yet? Hugo is, give or take, about George Melies and the birth of cinema, while The Artist centres on the trials of an actor at the birth of sound in cinema. The Descendants is in a long line of famiy-based dramas, while Moneyball is a sports film (which are, if you look at nominations from past years, pretty popular with old Oscar).

The Best Actor category is perhaps the best for showing what I’m trying to point out here: if we exclude Demian Bichir in A Separation (of which I’m very happy – a foreign film being nominated in something other than the Best Foreign Film category! Huzzah!), then we’re left with Jean Dujardin in The Artist, George Clooney in The Descendants, Brad Pitt in Moneyball and Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Dujardin seems like the odd one out here – but he does play a classic actor (albeit fictional, but the sentiment is still there). Clooney, Pitt and Oldman all seem either to be classic actors and distinguished and towing that line between “serious” acting and superstardom, much like bygone days.

Oscar Trio: Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball

So really, doesn’t old Oscar seem like he’s picking old-timey production values and star quality this year? There are probably two contributing factors to this: firstly, the fact that the 2011 Oscars were dominated, at least in the major categories, by The King’s Speech – i.e. America and Hollywood was defeated somewhat by Britain (at least on paper: if we look at the funding and all that, America contributed more to the success of The King’s Speech than you’d imagine). Secondly, the unconventional contest between Avatar and The Hurt Locker in 2010 brought the increasingly technological nature of Hollywood cinema to the fore: if Avatar had won, it would have meant that Oscar acknowledged big bucks and flashy CGI over general filmic integrity. Oddly though, I agreed when people suggested that using motion capture is still acting – but there’s still good acting and bad acting, whether you do it in a bobbly suit or not.

Few of the nominations in the Best Picture category this year can be said to be making big bucks, or indeed that loads of money was spent on them – Moneyball and The Descendants are what I’d like to call ‘indie-Clooney’ and ‘indie-Pitt’ (which they do much better in than your standard commercial fare) and so far The Artist has made less than a million at the Box Office. Yep, seriously. People have even demanded their money back because it’s silent. Yep, really. Despite all that publicity. The directors acknowledged this year are also mostly of the 70s old-guard or are very much in step with that movement – so we have Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick and Steven Spielberg (sort of) nominated. Maybe they’ve all perfected their art.

So perhaps we can say that Oscar is acknowledging three things: that big money doesn’t necessarily make a good movie, that artistic merit is best, and that artistic merit is even greater when it’s American. This return to a sense of classicism might seem a bit mean of Oscar in a technological age, but there are more truly great movies nomiated this year than in previous – so a classic feel might just bump up the excitement about who’s going to win on the night.

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