Thursday, 30 September 2010

'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' review:

Love him or loathe him, Oliver Stone is an interesting modern American filmmaker. Stone is not a director whose work I generally enjoy, or even particularly admire, but (as I have no doubt written here before) the source of my interest in him is twofold. Firstly, I am fascinated by the fact that he remains something of a chronicler of contemporary American history, covering everything from sporting life ('Any Given Sunday') to counterculture and popular music ('The Doors').

The filmmaker has made three films directly about the Vietnam War and as many covering American presidents, including one, 'W.', whilst the subject was still the incumbent. He also made his 9/11 movie, 'World Trade Center', within five years of the tragedy. Similarly films he has written but not directed, such as 'Scarface', have just as much to say about the American experience and (invariably) the evils of capitalism. This recurring interest in certain themes and issues is what marks him out as an auteur. This leads on to my second reason for finding Stone interesting.

I also really respect the fact that in an age where overtly polemical storytelling and documentary making is discouraged (or at least readily disregarded) Stone remains energised by a sincere politicism which he won't compromise. Whether you agree with him or not: Oliver Stone always wants to tell you something. More than that, he wants to convince you of something and even improve your understanding of the world. This is a rare trait – and, I think, a rather welcome one. Yet I must always come back to the fact that, in spite both these qualities, I am never moved to actually like his work. A fitting example of “good Stone/bad Stone” can be gleamed from his latest movie: 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'.

A sequel to 1987's original 'Wall Street', 'Money Never Sleeps' is a self-consciously timely look at the world of banking and finance in the wake of the current worldwide economic difficulties (archive news footage of which Stone blends into the film). Michael Douglas steps back into his Academy Award winning role as Gordon Gekko, who when as film begins in 2002 has spent the last eight years in prison as result of sleezy, insider trading crimes committed in that previous movie.

The first film focussed around Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox, but save for a small cameo role, this is not his story. Instead the sequel stars Shia LaBeouf as an opportunistic, up-and-coming Wall Street trader who begins a clandestine friendship with Gekko after becoming engaged to his estranged daughter, played by the illuminescent Carey Mulligan. As you'd expect, Stone wastes little time being subtle and early on Gekko gives a speech in which he tells us exactly what to think about corporate greed (whilst promoting his book “Is Greed Good?”).

The evils of Wall Street are also shown to us via high-level meetings in which a cast of really good old character actors, including Frank Langella and Eli Wallach (a scene stealer at 94), enact the sort of backroom deals that run the world. These scenes are reminiscent of situation room bits in 'W.', in which a lot of exposition is sold as dialogue. Also present is Josh Brolin as the film's antagonist, Bretton James (the “son of Satan”), the film's avatar for the ultimately self-destructive A-morality of corporate greed. Brolin, a last minute replacement of Javier Bardem (who chose to be in 'Eat, Prey, Love' instead), is flat as James, lacking the charisma that would make his attitude and lifestyle seem appealing. By contrast Douglas imbues the similarly morally bankrupt Gekko with considerable gravitas.

Stone makes it abundantly clear where his politics lie and what he thinks of these characters and this is the director at his most heavy-handed. The camera is forever circling characters, often zooming and panning around, often seemingly at random. But amongst his usual hyper-active grasp of cinematic style he does manage some genuinely inspired visual motifs, such as a graphic that likens the New York skyline to a diagram of boom and bust economics – a fitting metaphor, given how closely the growth of the city was itself tied up with the growth of international capitalism (with skyscrapers built by the biggest tycoons of the early twentieth century).

But generally, the director's bombast approach left me as cold as it ever has. He is helped a little in this instance by solid performers, with even LaBeouf shinning. But the focus on the relationship triangle between LaBeouf, Mulligan and Douglas is surplus to requirements (not to mention deadly dull) in a film which would do better to keep its eye on Wall Street. The resolution of this storyline is also pretty dire, feeling rushed and contrived – it seems to come from nowhere, not based on anything we have seen in the preceding two hours.

'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' is, to my mind, the quintessential Oliver Stone film. It's overlong, brash, simplistic and oddly proud of itself at the same time. The camera is never still, the dialogue is trite and feels written, with an emphasis on style over substance which runs counter to Stone's obvious genuine interest in his chosen subject matter. However, it is also, like the rest of his work, boldly topical and daringly propagandist.

In the end it feels reminiscent of watching him interview South American leaders earlier this year in ‘South of the Border’, having unprecedented access to people like Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez, but in the end wasting the opportunity asking them to play soccer with him or enquiring about how many pairs of shoes they own. I'm thrilled that he is out there making these films, usually attracting big stars and big budgets. I just wish that he had the intellect or the artistry to support his obvious ambition - and, what I believe, are good intentions.

'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' is out in the UK on the 6th of October and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Tony Curtis: 1925-2010

My Tony Curtis obituary is up on Obsessed With Film. Here are some good clips of the late icon:

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

'Certified Copy' review:

'Certified Copy' is a truly multi-national animal. A French, Italian and Belgian co-production, in which the dialogue is almost equally spread between French, Italian and English. Its writer and director, Abbas Kiarostami, is Iranian and its stars are the French Juliette Binoche and the English opera star William Shimell (in his first film role). The whole thing is set in Tuscany. But its nationality is probably the easiest thing to classify.

More than one critic has described it as "beguiling" and I'm not about to break ranks. Essentially, Binoche plays an antiques dealer and a single mother known only as "she" in the credits. She meets Shimell's James Miller (an author who has just written a book about the nature of originality and reproduction in art) ostensibly for the first time and they drive to a small, picturesque village for lunch. However, as you may have picked up from my not-so-subtle use of the word "ostensibly", things are not as they seem. Have the couple met before? Are they in fact a husband and wife? Or are they just a good facsimile of a couple? The answers are not altogether clear. Perhaps the more pertinent question is: does it matter?

These are the questions posed by Kiarostami's sweet and colourful film - his first feature made outside of Iran - which takes an interesting look at the idea of copies mostly via Shimell's scholarly author. Shimell is slightly wooden, affected and a bit pretentious, but no more so than an academic might be and he is a watchable presence. But it is Binoche who excels here in a role which requires her to (at times quite artificially) slip between extremes of emotion at a moments notice. Binoche is really quite something. She needs to be, as Kiarostami as always favours long takes on a single camera leaving nowhere to hide for either actor, especially when afforded one of many intense and prolonged close-ups. It is little wonder Binoche won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this role, earlier in the year.

Another Kiarostami motif recurring here is his use of a camera stuck to the bonnet of a car to capture the driver and passenger over a long, real-time journey, which is brilliantly used here. The buildings on either side of the Tuscan streets are reflected in the window, falling translucently over the protagonists, with the blue sky reflected between them. Your guess is as good as mine as to what (if any) significance that has as a visual. Perhaps seeing the sky and the buildings reproduced on a pane of glass so beautifully is proof of the virtue of a copy? In any case, it's a visually arresting film from a master filmmaker.

'Certified Copy' is difficult to talk about at length without running the risk of compromising it for those yet to see it (though perhaps any concern about the danger of "spoilers" is a testament to our belief that a copy can diminish the original?). In any case, I found it engaging and stimulating viewing, if every bit as unknowable, and well... beguiling, as I was lead to believe going in. Beautiful looking, with a terrific performance from its lead actress, 'Certified Copy' is engaging and thought-provoking cinema.

'Certified Copy' is on a limited release in the UK, playing at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton until Thursday. It is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Monday, 27 September 2010

'Winter's Bone' review:

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, 'Winter's Bone' is a gritty thriller adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell. The story concerns a young girl, Ree, who is forced by circumstances (a drug-addicted mother and a father absent through imprisonment) to raise her two young siblings in harsh surroundings of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, facing immense poverty. Things quickly get worse for Ree when she learns from the local sheriff that her father has left prison, using the family's meager home as his bail bond and that he is nowhere to be found. Ree then sets on a quest to find out what happened to her father in order to save the family home. Is he dead or alive? That is what Ree must discover, and in doing so she must ask a lot of people a lot questions - and not everybody in the small community appreciates it.

Written and directed by Debra Granik, the film stars the young Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. A compelling young actress, I first saw Lawrence Arriaga's 2008 drama 'The Burning Plain', and she is without doubt the best thing about the film, convincing as a tough and capable girl whilst also seeming vulnerable and often desperate. It is Lawrence who carries the film and it's successes are hers. Also good is John Hawkes as Teardrop, Ree's uncle who exhibits a quiet menace as well as warmth and somehow dignity (in spite of his drug dependency and unkempt demeanour). Ree exists in a small town with few options for people of her social class. It is made clear during one scene (in which Ree walks through her high-school) that the only opportunities on offer for most kids are joining the army or having a baby. It is a bleak look at what I suspect for many poor, working class (well, technically lumpenproletariat) Americans is a grim reality.

Yet 'Winter's Bone' troubled me a little, feeling like a sort of "poverty porn" film, taking pride in its ugliness and spending so much of its time focused on "grim realities" that it began feel a little forced. It's a sort of middle-class oriented poverty safari. I suppose much of the same could be said about last year's Sundance winner, 'Precious', and 'Winter's Bone' is similarly relentless in the way things get worse and worse for our protagonist.

Another thing that diminished the film for me, cutting its impact in half, was the sense that I'd seen much of it before and done better, and by another film with a seasonal title. The 2008 film 'Frozen River' (also a Sundance prize winner and also made by a female director in Courtney Hunt) also looks at American, small town poverty from the perspective of one woman. In this case the woman (the Oscar-nominated Melissa Leo) was looking for her husband rather than her father, but for essentially the same reason: to save her home and protect her two children. But 'Frozen River' feels more authentic, being based on the genuine realities of life for people in that part of Upstate New York, and the harshness of the landscape is more visceral - the cold feels colder - and any suspense or thrill is generated by an emotional interest in Leo's character.

'Winter's Bone' enters more traditional thriller territory, generating suspense by way of threat and even violence, featuring a gang of unfriendly locals that wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie, or even a horror video game. It's riddled with cliché "why don't you just turn around and go on back home missy" dialogue and the people and the mise en scène feel like something out of John Hillcoat's adaptation of 'The Road'. The climax of Ree's story is so obviously tailor made to be edgy and disturbing that it ends up feeling slightly ridiculous.

This isn't the last we'll hear of 'Winter's Bone', however. Jennifer Lawrence is hotly tipped to receive an Oscar nomination, and she will deserve it. I hope and expect that there is much more to come from her. But for Debra Granik, whose first feature ('Down to the Bone') was similarly focused on poverty, drug use and the struggle to raise children under these circumstances, I can only see more Sundance-friendly liberal condescension. Middle-class experience, it seems, is not "real" enough as a subject matter. And the poverty safari rolls on in hope of finding some new tragedy around the next corner. Meanwhile, pampered Hollywood actors prepare to cover their perfect faces in dirt all over again in their continuing quest to win golden statues. Now there is a hideous borgeous reality Granik should know something about.

'Winter's Bone' is out now in the UK on a limited release. It has been rated '15' by the BBFC.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

3D: a low-end gimmick or the future of cinema?

I'm back in Brighton now after a week and a bit working as a sub-editor on the Cambridge Film Festival Daily, and I thought I'd post an example of the sort of thing I've been writing whilst I've been away. This was in yesterday's paper:

Mark Kermode has confidently predicted the end of it within two years. On the other side of the Atlantic, Roger Ebert has told Newsweek that “It is unsuitable for grown-up films of any seriousness. It limits the freedom of directors to make films as they choose.” The industry-led resurgence of 3D films has steadily gained momentum over the last few years, reaching an all-time high with James Cameron's box office conquering Goliath, AVATAR, at the start of this year and attracting the ire of traditionalist movie critics the world over. Since then 3D films have looked set to become even more prevalent. Even features not shot purposefully for 3D, such as ALICE IN WONDERLAND and CLASH OF THE TITANS, have been taken into the world of plastic glasses and inflated ticket prices using a widely criticised post-production conversion process.

Some filmmakers have even begun to challenge the studios, speaking out against the ubiquitous use of 3D – including TRANSFORMERS helmer Michael Bay. I asked long-time Stanley Kubrick collaborator, Jan Harlan, whether he suspects the master filmmaker (ever the innovator) would have been at the forefront of this current craze. “He was interested in all technology that improved the image that he wanted to portray, and 3D isn't one of them... The only film he made where 3D could be interesting was 2001, in parts. But with a film like EYES WIDE SHUT why would you bother?” Echoing those comments of Ebert, Harlan added, ”if you want to make a deep film, it's distracting almost.” Bill Lawrence, an expert in the history of filmic innovations, is similarly unconvinced, seeing it as just one in a long line of gimmicks which diminish the quality of films made: “Quite often now they use the 3D effect to sell poor stories... to try and get an audience in.”

Many of these critics are willing to write the practice off, but film historian Ian Christie sees something fundamentally different in the current push towards the format, that sets it apart from attempts made in the fifties, seventies and eighties. For one thing, Christie suggests the technology behind it now is much better, giving it more appeal. But more important than that is the business side. ”I think now the mainstream industry is throwing a lot more behind it than was ever the case in the past.” Big electronics firms in particular are putting a lot of investment into it too: “the technology companies are determined to make it work. Sony in particular are throwing everything at it, and they see it as a massive solution to a lot of problems they've got.” Not to mention the fact that massive investment has already gone into upgrading many of Britain's projectors to support the push.

Another factor counting in 3D's favour, is that attitudes towards it have changed from within the creative side of the film industry. Speaking of earlier attempts he says, “It was seen as a gimmick, and it was actually seen as a sort of low-end gimmick. There is still a lot of that about at the moment... with PIRANHA 3D. But the difference is that some pretty serious filmmakers want to do something with it.” He was of course referring to the likes of James Cameron, but also more critically revered directors. “Scorsese's current picture is 3D as well. And I think that's going to be a real game-changer, because it's going to be hard for people to just write it off.” Meanwhile, Werner Herzog just premiered his first 3D film, a documentary on cave paintings, in Toronto.

Speaking to Christie is refreshing, as he expresses a sincere interest not really in vogue in film criticism. “I personally feel very enthusiastic about 3D, it's a wonderful resource and a whole new generation of filmmakers has to learn how to use it. It's not immediately obvious, it's a learning process. So if it can establish itself, then I think we might see a new generation coming through.” Perhaps the reluctance of people to seriously consider the process is not wholly unprecedented: “Cinemascope was bitterly attacked on all sides... and sound, was bitterly opposed, and colour. Just about every big development in the history of film has had its detractors – by defenders of what they consider to be true cinema.”

For Christie 3D is full of possibilities, and certainly nothing to be dismissed out of hand. “Cinema thrives on novelty” he enthuses. He ends our conversation on a similarly excitable note: ”I'd just like to see some more varied 3D films made. Bring them on, I say!”

Photos provided by the Festival's official photographer, Tom Catchesides. Thanks Tom!

Friday, 24 September 2010

'Empire of Silver' review:

Oliver Stone is not the only filmmaker with an upcoming movie about corruption on Wall Street. Chinese filmmaker Christina Yao also has her eye on many of the same timely themes in her film 'Empire of Silver' ('Baiyin Diguo') – which is set during the Boxer Rebellion in the closing days of the nineteenth century, in Shanxi: then considered the Wall Street of China.

'Empire of Silver' is a story of rivalry, ambition and corruption, centering on a family who control the vast majority of China's silver in the days before paper currency. The film's central focus is on a ruthless and powerful patriarch, Lord Kang (Zhang Tie Lin), and his relationship with his third son, played by Aaron Kwok. The central conflict is set around Lord Kang's demand that his heir consolidates the families wealth and power for the future of his dynasty, whereas the son is more compassionate, and unwilling to follow so closely in his father's footsteps. This is complicated further by the presence of Lord Kang's young wife (Lei Hao), who is also the son's one true love.

In many ways 'Empire of Silver' is everything we have come to expect from products of China's booming film industry. It is beautifully photographed and realised on a large scale, with emphasis on sets and costumes. However, this film is rather light on martial arts compared to the most successful Chinese exports! There is one unnecessary action sequence in the middle section that reeks of lack of confidence in the material's ability to entertain an audience, as two men square off against around thirty unconvincing CGI wolves. There is also a much more relevant and brief skirmish near the film's conclusion. But mainly the film eschews action – focusing on the human drama, the banking crisis and Chinese politics: both familial and international.

This makes for an interesting film, even for someone with a sketchy grasp of Chinese history, such as myself. The lead actors are compelling, with supporting players also decent – including a very small role for Jennifer Tilly as an English teacher.

The film is also quite accomplished in its unflinching depiction of the great poverty suffered by many of China's poorest people. Sometimes this falls into sentimentality, as when we get a shot of a small girl crying to emphasis the plight, but generally this is well handled. Lord Kang is an exploiter of poverty for economic gain, withholding resources to create a demand and raise prices, increasing his profit. He is not so far removed from today's business leaders – giving 'Empire of Silver' a striking relevance. It is a well-intentioned piece of cinema, with the central point being that there is nothing honorable about the accumulation of wealth and power. The noble and heroic deed is ultimately one born of compassion for those at the bottom, rather than ambition and greed – even at the price of lost status.

Unusually for a mainstream Chinese film, 'Empire of Silver' is also quite mature in it's depiction of sex. There was an uproar in China when 'Curse of the Golden Flower' featured, what was deemed, excessive amounts of cleavage. Likewise, the most recent Chinese films I have seen (including the likes of 'Reign of Assassins' and 'Di Renjie', in Venice) do contain female nudity, but usually artfully shot so as to conceal anything that could be deemed more explicit than the lower back. By contrast (and although very tame by Western standards), 'Empire of Silver' is fairly explicit, and its brief love scene is made all the more tender by its relative frankness.

'Empire of Silver' is an intelligent and well-made Chinese drama, which – like every good historical film you could name – works equally well as a story about more recent concerns. It could have done without the silly CGI wolves, which strike me as the most overt insertion of irrelevant action since Toshiro Mifune's aging doctor crippled a gang of heavies midway through Kurosawa's nineteenth century medical epic 'Red Beard'. But other than that, there is little to criticise about this effective and engaging film.

A UK general release is yet to be confirmed for 'Empire of Silver', which has not yet been rated by the BBFC.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

'Tamara Drewe' review:

I have to admit I was a little prejudiced towards Stephen Frears' latest film, 'Tamara Drewe'. For every good review (like Peter Bradshaw's intriguing write up in The Guardian), there was a nagging doubt based on several, admittedly superficial, factors. First among these was the horrible trailer in which a character says “she doesn't need a boy... she needs a man” (a line which never actually appears in the film). Then there was the poster, which generally just displayed Gemma Arterton in hot pants, resting on a fence in a bright and cheerful Dorset setting. These efforts to promote the film actually sold it short, giving little indication of the loose morals, black comedy and violent tragedy that actually lay within.

'Tamara Drewe' is based on a newspaper comic of the same name by Posy Simmonds, and sees Tamara (Arterton), an attractive young journalist, return to the quaint village of her youth in order to sell her family home. However, she soon disrupts the equilibrium of the village with her beauty, and her new rock star boyfriend (Dominic Cooper). The original comic was a reworking of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd - a fact that the film pays homage to with frequent references to Hardy's life and work, via a socially awkward American academic (a touching underdog played by Bill Camp).

In fact 'Tamara Drewe' is pretty solidly entertaining. It was never as sidesplittingly funny for me as it was for the rest of the audience (though I did laugh), but what won me over was the characters, who seem like broad archetypes from the outset but reveal more depth and complexity as the film goes on. By the its climax, the film has taken many unexpected turns and shunned many established conventions. For example, none of the characters are purely good or bad, with the adultery of Roger Allam's pompous author not able to completely diminish his wife's affection for him by the film's conclusion. Similarly, a less interesting film would have seen the “good” boyfriend (the boring Andy, played by Luke Evans) getting one over Dominic Cooper's indie hellraiser Ben, but again this never really materialises.

Instead there are performances of disarming depth and subtlety. Notably from Tamsin Grieg, who is the emotional centre of the film. Arterton is passable as Tamara, although she is probably the film's weakest suit. But it doesn't matter at all, because every other performer is really appealing. It is also of note that 'Tamara Drewe' features some of the best screen depictions of children that I have ever seen (Jessica Barden being the standout case), as two young girls gossip and bitch throughout the film – refreshingly not played by actors in their mid-twenties. They too are afforded a degree of emotional complexity and depth that goes beyond their comic exterior.

I can't say I ever need to see 'Tamara Drewe' again. But I was never bored and was always kept pleasantly entertained by a film with more to offer than perhaps immediately meets the eye.

'Tamara Drewe' is still on general release in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC. Also, check out my other recent reviews for 'A Town Called Panic' and 'Round Ireland With a Fridge'.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Cambridge reviews, so far...

I've been lucky so far at the 30th Cambridge Film Festival, in that between working as a sub-editor for the daily paper here I have also been able to see a few films. I have been reviewing them over at Obsessed with Film, so I'll post the links here:

'The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec'

'Enter the Void'
'Police, Adjective'
'World's Greatest Dad'

Thursday, 16 September 2010

'The Dispensables' review/The start of the Cambridge Film Festival...

Venice is now a thing of the past and I have just landed at another film festival: Cambridge Film Festival. It starts today at the Arts Picturehouse and I will be working as one of two sub-editors on the daily paper here. I had hoped to watch the opening night movie, the next Luc Besson film 'The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec'. But instead I have been roped into presenting the on-stage Q+A tonight for the first film in the festival German Cinema Season: 'The Dispensables'. I'll be talking to director and writer Andreas Arnstedt about the movie... and so I better end this now and write down some questions...

I'll fill this entry out by putting my review of the film here, an expanded version of one published in today's daily:

The Dispensables, which played as the opening of the German Film Season here at the 30th Cambridge Film Festival, is the debut feature written and directed by Andreas Arnstedt – a well-known TV actor in his native country. Set in contemporary Berlin, it is the story of those who fall through the cracks of society – focussing primarily on one working class family. It is a universal story of poverty, that its director told me has been best received in festivals in some of the world's poorest countries (notably winning top prizes in Sao Paulo,Brazil).

It is the complex and uncomfortable, true-life tale of a boy who,fearing life in an orphanage, continues living with his father's corpse in their squalid flat. It shines a light on problems not
normally associated with the cities of Europe's most affluent nations – but which is actually always right under our nose, unreported. As a result, the film has been a tough sell in Germany (and currently has no distribution deal outside that country). Arnstedt was in fact forced to fund the film entirely out of his own pocket, and the great personal attachment he has to this story is evident and sincere.

Traumatic events in recent German history are in the background here, but often go unaddressed, from the neo-Nazis in the street, to the old man still fighting the Second World War with an army of garden gnomes. There is a socially satirical streak here and some black comedy, in this gritty social drama that feels more similar to something offered by Ken Loach or even the late great Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Arnstedt's idol), as opposed to anything else in recent German cinema.

Told from the perspective of the young boy, Jacob (Oskar Bökelmann), the film goes backwards and forwards in time with some considerable skill. The transitions are seamless and flow naturally, whilst the narrative line is always coherent. The film is a real triumph of editing, and perhaps a genuine fascination with film editing is the reason for the film’s running joke about the superior editorial skills of Steven Spielberg.

There are some really good performances here too, especially from the actors playing Jacob’s parents, André Hennicke and Steffi Kühnert. Hannicke manages to portray the temperamental “master painter”, Jürgen in a way which is sympathetic, despite the jarring physical abuse he inflicts upon his family. There is always a pitiful sadness behind his eyes. Kühnert is better still as Jacob’s alcoholic mother, Silke, never straying into cliché or playing the victim.

The Dispensables is tragic, gritty and unflinching, yet also moving without ever verging on sentimentality. It is also made with style and confidence uncommon in a debut feature.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The last word on Venice...

This is the last post I imagine I'll post on the 2010 Venice Film Festival. I head off to work as a sub-editor in the festival daily in Cambridge from Thursday, so I'll be keeping very busy - and I'll have a new festival to bang on about here. But in the meantime, I wanted (pretty much for my own amusement) to hand out my own "awards" for the best of the 67th Venice International Film Festival. I more or less did this when discussing the actual awards in my last post here, as well as in a piece on Obsessed with Film, where I suggested my favourites as I looked at those actually rewarded by Tarantino's jury.

These fake awards take on new significance today too (even if only in my own head), as many in the Italian press - and now influential American journalists have joined them - have accused the 'Pulp Fiction' director of favouritism, as many of the awards went to friends of his.

I don't know whether those charges are fair. Of course, Tarantino himself has been keen to insist that he picked the winners based on their merits and not on friendship. But in any case, here are my two cents, and my final word on the festival:

GOLDEN LION for Best Film:
BLACK SWAN - Darren Aronofsky (USA)
No doubt in my mind whatsoever here. Darren Aronofsky's 'Black Swan' was simply perfect. It played on the opening night of the festival and set a really high standard for all that followed. Really intense, it scared me, moved me and excited me. Really amazing. A film that reminded me why I love cinema.

SILVER LION for Best Director to:
13 ASSASSINS - Takeshi Mike (JAP)
Darren Aronofsky was the "best director" in fairness, but this award is traditionally give as a runner-up prize. And in that spirit I have given it my second favourite film, '13 Assassins'. In my review I compared it favourably to Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai', so I could hardly not reward Mike if it is that good. The most fun and exciting film in competition, in terms of action. The battle in the last half hour is as good as any I've ever seen in the cinema. The film also deals with interesting themes, namely the contradictions between and evils of traditionalism and formal beauty in Japanese culture.

NOI CREDEVAMO - Mario Martone (ITA)
I don't really know what this award is for. I suppose it's the award for "we wanted to give this film an award but it really wasn't the best at anything in particular". In that case, I will award it to the Italian nationalism epic, Noi credevamo - directed by Mario Martone. There was no trailer, so watch this clip (in Italian) to get a sense of how "well made" it is. It reminds me a little of 'Barry Lyndon' in terms of the lighting (and obviously the period). One of my favourite films from the festival and a rare three hour plus movie that doesn't feel overlong.

for Best Actor:

BARNEY'S VERSION - Paul Giamatti (USA)
If there was one award I didn't strongly disagree with the other night, it was the decision to give Vincent Gallo the best actor prize for his role in 'Essential Killing' - a damn good thriller with a brilliant central performance. However, I'm just going to be contrarian and go with the equally excellent Paul Giamatti, whose performance in Richard J. Lewis' 'Barney's Version' proved the festival's only real tearjerker. Giamatti's performance in this film, as he plays a man over three decades, is a masterclass. This trailer doesn't really do it justice, but here it is anyway.

for Best Actress:

BLACK SWAN - Natalie Portman (USA)
I don't know if I should gush about 'Black Swan' any more than I already have (at some length). I'll just say that Portman's dedication to this role - which required extensive ballet lessons - is matched by the intensity and emotional depth of her performance. I'll also say here (so I can post another trailer) that Michele Williams excelled in the fairly boring Western, 'Meek's Cutoff'.

for Best Young Actor or Actress:

LA PECORA NERA - Luigi Fedele (ITA)
The 27 year old Mila Kunis won this award the other night, which was a little odd if you ask me. So instead I've plumbed for Luigi Fedele, a newcomer who really shone playing the childhood version of the central character in the charming Italian comedy La pecora nera. He's the kid on the left at the start of the clip below.

OSELLA for Best Cinematography to:
OVSYANKI (SILENT SOULS) - Mikhail Krichman (RUS)
I won't dare go against the grain here. The critics favourite movie here (at least based on aggregate scores taken for the festival's daily trade paper), 'Ovsyanki' is a remarkable Russian drama about an obscure, now forgotten burial ritual, directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko. Mikhail Krichman's cinematography is suburb here, especially in its treatment of bleak, yet beautiful Russian landscapes. Some of the shots in this film blew my mind.

OSELLA for Best Screenplay to:
LA PASSION - Umberto Contarello, Doriana Leondeff, Carlo Mazzacurati, Marco Pettenello (ITA)
This quirky little Italian comedy, about a film-maker who is roped into directing an amateur production of The Passion of Christ after he inadvertently destroys an old fresco, was really funny and took a delightfully irreverent look at Catholicism, film-making and acting. I doubt it'll get much distribution outside of Italy, which is a pitty.

The Chinese film industry
This award was made up by the jury in order to give a statue to Tarantino's mentor, Monte Hellman ('The Road Nowhere'). But I'm giving it to the Chinese film industry, which is giving Hollywood a run for its money. I saw around nine Chinese film's in Venice, ranging from a youth-orientated dance flick ('Showtime'), to martial arts movies ('Di Renjie' (below), 'Reign of Assassins' and 'Legend of the Fist'), to the gritty, realist historical drama 'The Ditch' - as well as one 3D animated short film, 'Space Guy'.

I didn't like all of them, but they were all pretty well made and interesting in their own way. What I reall admire is that there are so many. OK, I understand China is a pretty huge country, but all the same: there were no British films in competition at all. And the only British movies that did play at the festival were small, installation art pieces (like the dreary 'Robinson in Ruins') and not "entertainment" aimed at audiences. The British industry needs to order whatever the Chinese are drinking.

So there you have it! My picks of the best from Venice 2010.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Back in the UK! Final stuff from Venice...

Back from Venice now (finally) and there are a few more reviews I want to link to from my time there, including one I've written for the Sunday Telegraph. It is in today's paper:

The Tempest
Barney's Version

You may or may not know, but the winners this year were announced last night, and were as follows (copied from the official festival web page):

The Venezia 67 Jury, chaired by Quentin Tarantino and comprised of Guillermo Arriaga, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Arnaud Desplechin, Danny Elfman, Luca Guadagnino, Gabriele Salvatores, having viewed all twenty-four films in competition, has decided as follows:

GOLDEN LION for Best Film:

SILVER LION for Best Director to:
Álex de la Iglesia for the film BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA
(Spain, France)

(Poland, Norway, Hungary, Ireland)

for Best Actor:
Vincent GALLO
(Poland, Norway, Hungary, Ireland)

for Best Actress:
Ariane LABED
in the film ATTENBERG by Athina Rachel TSANGARI (Greece)

for Best Young Actor or Actress:
in the film BLACK SWAN by Darren ARONOFSKY (USA)

OSELLA for Best Cinematography to:
for the film SILENT SOULS (OVSYANKI) by Aleksei FEDORCHENKO (Russia)

OSELLA for Best Screenplay to:
Álex de la Iglesia
for the film BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA by Álex de la Iglesia
(Spain, France)


In brief summary, I am not too unhappy to see Sofia Coppola's 'Somewhere' win the award, although I would personally have liked to see 'Black Swan' emerge victorious. There was a rumour going around on the Saturday morning that the Russian film 'Ovsyanki' was going to win. Instead it took a deserved award for cinematography. It was the highest rated film at the festival, according to the festival daily's look at newspaper review scores ('Somewhere' is placed 9th on that list - but what do critics know?).

I am genuinely surprised that Natalie Portman didn't get the actress nod, although 'Black Swan' did get the award for the best young actor, which went to Mila Kunis (who is 27!). Instead the actress category was a real shock, with the unfancied 'Attenberg' taking it via Ariane Labed. Vincent Gallo is good value for his best actor award, for his silent part in 'Essential Killing' - as an Afghan man on the run from US forces. I would like to have seen Paul Giamatti rewarded for the title role in 'Barney's Version', but Gallo was my next choice.

I had mixed feelings about 'Balada triste de trompeta' but I don't begrudge Álex de la Iglesia his best director award, or the screenplay one. You need to see the film to understand, but it is unlike anything else I have seen.

On an non-Venice note, my review of Herzog's 'My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?' is up at Obsessed with Film.

Friday, 10 September 2010

More from Venice...

This will be my last update from Italy. I should be back in the UK by now (originally I was due back on Thursday), but I have stayed after a UK national newspaper asked me to review a film playing Saturday morning. I feel nervous and excited about the whole thing, and will be writing it whilst dashing from the screening to the plane home, but it is a great opportunity and well worth delaying my return home for.

Since I last posted here, I wrote another Picturehouse blog entry and the following reviews have been submitted to Obsessed with Film:

I’m Still Here
Noi credevamo
Surviving Life
Balada triste de trompeta
Venus Noire
Promises Written in Water
The Town
La solitudine dei numeri primi
The Road Nowhere
13 Assassins

Monday, 6 September 2010

Just a quick Venice update...

Writing from the Venice press room in the Lidocasino, just to say that I haven't had very much time (at least not with an internet connection) in order to update the blog along with my other (paying) commitments. I'm planning on writing some more in-depth stuff on my Venetian adventure when I touch down back in Blighty. Probably more about my travels, as well as about the films. I'm also going to do my own awards for the festival. Which should be fun.

Whilst I've been away Jon and I have recorded two Splendor Podcasts (one of which is online now) and the latest Flick's Flicks has also been put online:

Anyhow, here is an easy summary of everything I've written elsewhere (so far):

Black Swan


Legend of the Fist: the Return of Chen Zhen
Norwegian Wood
Happy Few
La pecora nera
Ovsyanki (Silent Souls)
Reign of Assassins
La passione
Meek's Cutoff
Post Mortem
Essential Killing
Di Renjie zhi Tongtian diguo (Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame)
I'm Still Here - Press conference
The Ditch

I have also contributed three fairly long-winded run-downs to the Picturehouse Blog:

First post
Second post
Third post

Thursday, 2 September 2010

More Venice Adventures!

Ok! Little pushed for time, so here is a little update.

I posted a summary of the films so far on the Picturehouse Blog, as well as impressions of 'Showtime', 'Legend of the Fist: the Return of Chen Zhen' and my short, instant reaction to 'Black Swan', at Obsessed with Film. Jon and I also recorded a new podcast, which will be up soon (I hope).

Full reviews of 'Black Swan' and 'Miral' will be up later, along with summaries of 'Norwegian Wood' and 'Happy Few'. So check back later!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Travelling to Venice + Day One (so far)

I have never been abroad before now. Well, with the exception of a school ski trip over a decade ago. Nor have I been on an aeroplane. So it is no wonder I am excited – even by the short monorail journey to Gatwick airport's Terminal N. As I tuck into some scrambled egg on toast at the terminal's branch of Weatherspoon's, I feel like this is somehow the perfect wave goodbye to England. If only it were goodbye. I finish my meal to find my flight is delayed by an hour. Welcome to air travel, I guess.

When it is finally time to board the plane, a BA flight to Venice and the film festival, I glimpse the unfashionable lounges which feel like a frozen piece of the 1980's. They are in stark contrast to the sterile, modern mall above – where I was able to purchase a copy of Murakami's Norwegian Wood, in anticipation of the adaptation screening the next day. The deeper I go into the airport, the less “special” I feel. On the train from Brighton I was thinking “these people don't know I'm going to Venice.” When I first entered the airport, I though “sure, these people are going somewhere, but it won't be as good as Venice.” But now, waiting to board the plane, I am all to aware that everyone is going to Venice. Irrationally, I start to resent everyone around me.

More so when they act as if it's entirely normal to hurtle 33,000 feet into the air in a metal cylinder. I'm looking out my window at the right wing, praying it doesn't explode, and then within minutes I am above the English channel, with the coasts of England and France within view. Yet the man in the seat in front hasn't looked up from The Spectator since we boarded the plane.

From the air, all Northern Europe looks identical: patchwork configurations of lush, green agricultural land, broken up by roads and the occasional river system. But it's spectacular. The pilot informs us of our course, saying we are flying over Luxembourg, heading towards Frankfurt, where we will make a right and head to Venice, passing over Stuttgart and Innsbruck and Verona. The the while, I am glued to the window and getting none of my reading done. Over Frankfurt, I can see what looks like a nuclear power station and a long, wide and winding river stretching off southwards as far as the eye can see, whilst over Stuttgart, the mighty football stadium is rendered laughably small, as are the autobahns. I feel like I bought tickets to a show called “Google Earth – LIVE!” and it's the best show I've ever seen.

Living in the city, you can come to imagine that we (humans) have destroyed the better part of our environment – paving it with concrete. When you travel by air you are reassuringly shown that this isn't the case. Which is not to say the landscapes were anything “natural” - obviously, the patches of farmland owe everything to the interference of man – but it is a comfort to know an aerial view of Europe is not yet grey. In fact, as things are, it is always a welcome sight to glimpse a city below.

Of course, capitalism does its best to ruin things – even this high above the clouds. British Airway's “High Life Shop” trolley comes around, offering the chance of duty free shopping whilst you fly (as if that time marooned at the airport, surrounded by digital cameras, perfume and cigarettes, wasn't enough). Quite why anyone would fancy buying a bottle of Channel No.5 or Grouse Whiskey from a cart on the plane, is anyone's guess. Sure, the alps are coming into view below, the majestic peaks of the mountains, breaching the clouds in a way I can only describe as painfully beautiful, but sure. Go shopping.

The alps are genuinely magnificent. Especially when we pass over a green, forested valley, with a lake at its center and now atop its peaks. For a time over the mountains, nothing is visible but the thickest clouds. But even this has its own beauty to it.

Landing in Venice, I was surprised to find how comforted I was by familiarity. Upon leaving the airport, I was greeted by a huge banner with the Barcelona football team – comprised of South Americans, Africans and Europeans - on it (advertising a Turkish airline in Italian – if ever there was a better example of internationalism: I haven't seen it). I saw a BMW dealership, a bus advertising Camp Rock 2 and, later in my hotel room, saw Maroon 5 on Italian MTV.

The overall theme seemed to be “we're all the same”. Of course, I'd always known that in a glib, liberal, humanist sort of way – but I was struck by how true it really is. Seeing everywhere from Kent to Venice, more or less looking the same from the air, was both disappointing and reassuring. As was seeing that Italian roadsides are no more glamorous than British ones and that Italian infants are no less annoying on public transport then our own. It was all curiously life affirming. I have a theory that if everyone was sent into space for ten minutes to look at, and contemplate, the earth: it would end all conflict. Maybe that's bullshit, but the farther you zoom out, surely the more trivial disputes come to seem and differences come to seem smaller too.

Anyway, enough sanctimonious preaching. After landing in Venice I was struck by the fact that in every direction and round every corner is something beautiful. Ridiculously beautiful. Take the most amazing building you've seen in London and surround it with a thousand more just as nice or nicer: this is Venice. I took a lot of photos at first (which annoyingly this notebook I am borrowing won't let me upload) but I had to stop. I realised, if I take pictures of every thing of beauty I encounter: I won't have time to do anything else.

So, first evening in Venice, thanks to the delay of the flight I missed the early showing of the new Donnie Yen movie, which I said I might try to see (though the next day I saw the man himself). Instead I caught up with Jon (Splendor Cinema) and drank strange and potent Lithuanian liquors with a array of beautiful people from all over Europe (I was the only Brit and the only person with only one language, among over 100 people). I took several Vaparetto rides around the city and saw the sunset over the domed skyline. Wonderful already.

I will now go downstairs and have my first Italian breakfast at my hotel. Which is run by an Indian bloke called Roy, who is fluent in Indian, Italian, English, German, Spanish and French, no less....

... that was this morning's entry, but I couldn't post it (no internet for me unless I'm in the press area at the Lidocasino). Since then I have seen the amazing 'Black Swan' - the new film by Darren Aronofsky's new film. It blew me away totally. I wrote a quick-fire first impression on my blackberry and sent it to my editor at Obsessed with Film and he put it up. It then got quoted by another site pretty soon afterwards! Anyway, full review to follow. I then went to the press conference with the director and stars Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel, which I will also write up later for OWF.

After that: the perfect antidote for 'Black Swan'. A really naff Chinese comedy called 'Showtime'. It was a light-hearted film with one eye on the 'Step Up'/'Street Dance' audience, an obvious influence in the direction and choreography. Very weird, involving time travel and super powers of some kind. I really didn't understand it, I guess. But most people seemed to share that feeling, with a packed auditorium being way under half full by the film's end, with walk outs visible throughout. I hope director, Stanley Kwan, wasn't there!

Now I'm off to see if I can score some 'Machete' tickets for midnight's world premiere. Wish me luck!