Wednesday, 30 December 2009

[284] Wild Tyme's Films of 2009, part two

And now to conclude my 'Films of the Year 2009' retrospective. In the second half of the year, my viewing was a little more varied, resulting in fewer entries below that were reviewed for Den of Geek or any other outlet. So a number of the entries below are on films I have not written about before - so read away! Here's to a similarly consistent, quality-filled 2010.





The Class / Entre Les Murs

A Palme d'Or winner at Cannes in 2008, I finally saw Entre les murs at the Prince Charles over the summer. Its depiction of high school education in inner-city Paris was potent and insightful, revealing the tight-rope that teachers have to walk as they work to inspire and inform their pupils in a job that is just as much about crowd control and diplomacy. The film's fly-on-the-wall style, and well-researched (and perfectly acted) qualities make it unmissable.





Moon

After a couple of years of cross-over geek films, it seemed that there would soon be little for sci-fi nuts to call their own. However, Moon is a great big science fiction film in a style that comes along too rarely. Subtle, quiet and full of pathos, it is a piece of work that requires little special effects, and few scares and thrills; it is all bound up in human emotions and experience, and is enhanced by the coldness and isolation of space. Sam Rockwell carries the film almost single-handedly (although Kevin Spacey's mysterious, ever-so-slightly camp vocal performance deserves notice too), and newcomer Duncan Jones shows he has intelligence, resourcefulness and talent in spades. A real gem.





Fantastic Mr. Fox (review)

October came and with it brought the London Film Festival. While I didn't get full accreditation (maybe next year), I was quite excited to attend in order to see two of the programme's three films featuring George Clooney. Fantastic Mr. Fox was the first, and was the slightly better film. Full of warmth and texture provided by its orange-brown hues and furry stop-motion animation, the real joy of the flick was its collision of plucky adventure and director Wes Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach's New York, upper middle class, intellectual idiosyncrasies.





The Men Who Stare At Goats (review)

The Men Who Stare At Goats had more pronounced problems - mainly revolving around its fictionalised-non-fiction premise - but it was, like Fantastic Mr. Fox, an entertainingly light addition to the year's cinematic landscape. Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges let loose in their hippy-GI roles, providing plenty of inoffensive laughs and cheery barminess. At the time, I said it was 'to the end, a joyous, heartfelt film... Its tone is pitched just right, with each cheeky montage sequence, furrowed brow of concentration, or straight-faced citation of the paranormal hitting a sweet, comic note'.





Up

Up is a much better film than Wall-E, but both films suffer from the same problems. Again, this new Pixar film was greeted with hyperbole and praise, but all of its true, unconventional genius is crystallised in its opening act. That sequence, a life as musical montage, is a beautiful short film in its own right, showing that the creatives have perfected a graceful method of intertwining character, drama, and heart-string manipulation. The rest of the film is a ragged, slightly lop-sided adventure, full of quirky characters and mild peril. Crucially, however, it does not lose the plot like its predecessor; in fact, the proceedings are enriched by its bold opening, with the crotchety old man vitalised and shaped by his backstory. Indeed, the whole film dares to unfurl in the shadow of loss, mourning and the inevitability of aging. Yet it is never dragged down by morbidity; it blossoms with hope and energy. For that reason, it is special.





Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno

UK Distributor Park Circus had a stellar 2009, especially with their three releases in the Autumn-Winter period. Two were majestic reprints: The Red Shoes and The Godfather. The third film was an engrossing documentary, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, which told of a project where inspiration was scuppered by bad luck and over-indulgence. Splicing together interviews, recreations and, most importantly, astonishing experimental footage from the unfinished film project, Inferno was a real treat for cinephiles.





Men on the Bridge / Köprüdekiler

Köprüdekiler was the recipient of the London Turkish Film Festival's inaugural Golden Wings Award, and it was a worthy winner, portraying the bustling city of Istanbul from three street-level perspectives. This debut from director Asli Özge is a quiet, naturalistic piece that is miles away from the stylish fairytale of works like Issiz Adam; instead, it adopts a scope that feels like a Robert Altman film, shifting between the stories of a street hustler, a taxi driver and a lonely traffic cop - all of whom live and work in the shadow of Istanbul's Bosphorus Bridge - with the view of cooking up a rounded, insightful narrative. This is definitely one to watch out for once it receives a general release in the new year.





A Serious Man (review)

I was very surprised by A Serious Man, the latest film from the Coen Brothers. Deciding to work on a small budget, and train their sights on the Mid-West American Jewish society in which they grew up, they managed to craft something that features all of their hallmarks, and little of their flaws. And some of the best Jefferson Airplane fan service I have ever been privy to. I said in my Den of Geek review: 'A Serious Man is certainly one of [their] best works... Not only does the film have the off-kilter worldview, memorably expressive moments, and sharp dialogue of top-game Coens, it also has affecting depths of maturity and lyricism'.





On the Way to School

Shown at both the London Turkish and Kurdish Film Festivals, On the Way to School is similar to Entre les murs in its representation of education as the nexus of social tensions. It is a documentary of a Turkish trainee teacher's first placement - in an impoverished Kurdish village in the far east of the country. The tone is light, and there is much gentle humour teased out of this fish-out-of-water situation, as the teacher must handle the large classes and adjust to the community (the cast of cheeky children are a big help in this regard).

However, the film bubbles with a subtextual intensity, as the Kurdish children are forced to speak only Turkish in the class-room, are punished for speaking in their native language, and must recite the Turkish oath of citizenship every morning before school starts. With no narration and little to no authorial fingerprints, On the Way to School does not adopt a stance on these matters of enforced integration and culture suffocation, which will be frustrating for some, but these small insights give the film a harder, fascinating edge.





Ponyo / Gake no ue no Ponyo

How better to finish than with a film set for a 2010 release? I am quite a Studio Ghibli fanatic, so my anticipation for Ponyo was high. Nevertheless, it should speak volumes about the quality of 2009's animated films that the latest from Hayao Miyazaki is faced with strong competition. It is probably his most obviously flawed film, with an attempted mixture of a My Neighbour Totoro-like real-life fairy story and a Princess Mononoke/Howl's Moving Castle epic adventure plot not working so well. This is still a wonderful film, however, full of energy, inspiration and imagination.

My Den of Geek review is yet to be published, but I conclude with: 'nevertheless, the wonders of the film - its visual sense, its charming outlook, the striking score from Joe Hisaishi (which blends both wistful and Wagnerian Romanticism very well) - scream through the cultural-language barrier, making the dubbed version of Ponyo, for the most part, a beautiful, heartwarming piece that should bring a smile to anyone's face, regardless of age'.

Monday, 28 December 2009

[283] Wild Tyme's Films of 2009, part one

This year - I suppose I can say - I became a film critic. While I'm still not widely read, fully recognisable or seeing as many films as some more professional critics (those that easily break 300 a year), I am still watching more than I ever have, and consistently reviewing them in the process. Over the last twelve months, I have seen 59 flicks at the cinema (not far off twice as many as last year), and reviewed most of them for Den of Geek or Screenjabber. I'm hoping that this can only improve and progress as I develop and consolidate my career. Next year should be interesting, but here are the twenty films that made my 2009, in two parts.





Slumdog Millionaire

Technically a 2008 movie, but this was the first film I saw this year, at the Peckham Plex cinema with Nick 'Fox' Moran. I didn't review it at the time, but I remember scribbling pages of notes in my diary about it, raving about its energy, its humanity and its brilliant melding of emotion, fairytale and down-to-earth urbanism. It's a real classic, and probably Danny Boyle's best film; I prefer others of his - Millions, Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later especially - but his films often have one or two glaring mis-steps or slips. Slumdog Millionaire, more than any film this year, really pulsed with life and love.





Vicky Cristina Barcelona (review)

I remember having my haircut before the Vicky Cristina Barcelona screening, not knowing what to expect. It was my first press screening, and I was quite surprised by the welcoming, down-beat atmosphere of the Soho Screening Rooms. I was more surprised by the film, though, probably Woody's best since the early '90s (certainly of those I've seen). It is understated, casual and without some of the grand ideas and concepts of his better recent films (Deconstructing Harry, Everyone Says I Love You, Celebrity, Melinda & Melinda), but this does not hold it back from being a keeper.

I reviewed it for Den of Geek, and said it was a 'novella film'; something character-driven, small-scale and centered on relationships and interaction. The writing is sharp and complex, but the airy Spanish setting, and the consistently strong performances from the cast (Penelope Cruz especially) gives it more definition. Woody is already working on his next film in line - with Whatever Works already done, dusted and released in the majority of the world, and another London project in the post-production stage - but this is one worth going back to.





The Wrestler

Again, I didn't review The Wrestler, but this was an affecting film. Like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this film saw a uniquely talented left-of-centre director making their most mainstream, star-oriented film - but unlike Button, The Wrestler is a bloody, heart-wrenching triumph. Mickey Rourke's performance is unbearable to watch, for all the right reasons, and the story of Randy 'The Ram' Robinson bleeds emotional energy out of the most unlikely sources, without much of the manipulation and crassness of many 'weepies'. I could have done without the subplot involving Evan Rachel Wood's daughter character but, for the most part, The Wrestler is a fitting, if stylistically more realistic, sequel to Requiem For A Dream's gut-wrenching, cathartic drama.





Watchmen (review 1, review 2)

Watchmen is a weird, stylish, ugly, inspired, flawed monster of a movie. I wrote about it twice: once up against it, writing to a tight embargo for its theatrical release; and secondly in a more reflective mode, sizing it up as a DVD release. It was my first big review for Den of Geek, and the first press junket I covered.





Let the Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (review)

When pushed, I placed this at the top of my list for Den of Geek's films of the year article.
Låt den rätte komma in is fabulous, moving and surprising, and at the time I said it was 'inventive, moving and disturbing -- all with a subtle touch'. I can't really make much of an advance on my original Den of Geek review, so it is best to check that out here.





Coraline (review)

I am currently in Manchester, and at arm's length from my signed copy of Neil Gaiman's Coraline. When he came to Manchester years ago, I was unable to attend his reading-signing; I finally rectified that mix-up last Halloween, but imagine my surprise when I had the opportunity to interview not only Gaiman, but the superb stop-motion animation director Henry Selick (the man behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, a favourite of mine) for the film's release. That was a huge moment for me this year, and I don't know if I can think of many interview subjects that can top them. It also helped that the film was fantastic, retaining the mystery, imagination and tone of the novella, while bringing a seemingly endless supply of fantastical flourishes and production pizazz to the piece.





Che (The Argentine and Guerilla)

In a bid to go to the cinema more often as a paying customer (something that crashed completely this year), I became a member of London's Prince Charles Cinema, a great little picture house just off Leicester Square. While I still haven't really exploited my membership to its fullest capabilities, I still went along to see a few good flicks there. The first was a superb double bill of Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che Guevara biopic. Unconventional, complex and radical, it's no surprise that it didn't fully recoup its budget from exhibition.

I ended up reviewing the DVD releases of both films for Den of Geek, in which I said: 'While both Che films add up to an often baggy, uncompromising 4-and-a-half-hour epic, their quality lies in their ambition and duality. Furthermore, they break the mould by refusing to rein in history, subjugating it to the medium of cinema. Instead, characters, events and context spill out from all directions, inciting the viewer to explore the period on their own after the film ends. As a whole, they present a kind of political, biographical film that manages to inspire interest without resorting to crass polemicism or Hollywood sugar-coating'.





Chevolution (review)

The middle of 2009 was full of Che, as I went from reviewing Soderbergh's film to seeing Chevolution, a fantastic documentary about the revolutionary and his pop-cultural legacy, told through the history of the famous
Guerrillero Heroico portrait. It was a real feast of a film, full of information and insight, playing well to the strengths of its form in the way that Soderbergh did with his film.

I said in my review for Screenjabber, where I also interviewed co-director Trisha Ziff: 'this means that, after the film, propelled by its rock music soundtrack, has washed over you, it reveals itself, in retrospect, to be a wonderfully dense documentary - its 86 minutes tightly packed with a wealth of political, historical, artistic and sociological information. That it does this while still allowing room for complexity, conflict and ambiguity, is testament to the great talent that has gone into its creation'.





Broken Embraces / Los abrazos rotos (review)

One of the near-misses of 2009, I found it quite strange that Pedro Almodovar's Los abrazos rotos was greeted by surprisingly lukewarm reviews, and gained little recognition in many of the end-of-year features I have read so far. I thought it was wonderful: buoyant and cheeky in its colourful, melodramatic take on noir, with eye-pleasing, strong performances across the board.





Harry Brown (review)

This is still a complicated one for me, because the film's frustrating politics are either naive or reactionary - meaning that I can't recommend Harry Brown lightly. That is a real shame, because it features a great central performance from Michael Caine, and Daniel Barber cooks up an interesting tapestry of a world for his debut film. But, unlike other complicated reactions from this year (Public Enemies, Inglourious Basterds, Avatar), I think that Harry Brown deserves support, if only so that its successes can be appreciated.



Tune in again soon for the second part of my Films of 2009...

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

[282] Paper Science

Now this is a perfect little small press-themed stocking filler, if I ever saw one!





Paper Science is a tasty, twelve-page morsel from the dream merchants at We Are Words + Pictures. Working in collaboration with The Newspaper Club, editor Matthew Sheret et al have put together a nice periodical-shaped sampler, showing off - in their words - 'some of the wonderful things our friends are doing'. This includes photography and prose, creative writing and comics from the likes of Julia Scheele, Katie West, Lizz Lunney and Adam Cadwell (whose contribution is a lovely, tight one-pager called 'Spilt Soda').





And there's more: stories and mini-essays, and an extract from Dan Hancox and Tom Humberstone's My Fellow Americans project. There's also an interview with the irreplaceable Marc Ellerby, and a full page dedicated to Matt Jones' 'Get Excited and Make Things' poster. Fitting, really, as Paper Science drips with infectious enthusiasm and excitement.





It's only a pound, and is creativity in its purest form. A perfect companion to the Solipsistic Pop anthology (which I gushed about here) - luckily, it is being bundled with online orders of that slice of joy. Otherwise, it can be purchased at OK Comics Leeds, Orbital Comics London, Page 45 Nottingham, or from We Are Words + Pictures market stalls in the future.

For more info, click here.

Monday, 21 December 2009

[281] Lynn Shelton Interview

And now that Humpday is out at the cinemas, I can gladly link again to the interview I conducted with director and writer Lynn Shelton. A kind, intelligent lady with a broad, infectious smile. Shelton was a great interview; I was especially happy to get her views on the American independent cinema scene, and was thrilled to chat with her about Stardust Memories, one of my favourite Woody Allen films. Check it out below.





As her latest film, Humpday, opens across the UK, Michael Leader speaks with Lynn Shelton, writer, director and producer of the 'bromantic comedy', starring Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard as two best friends, who decide to film a porn film together on a 'mutual dare'. Shelton, recipient of the Someone to Watch Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Grand Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence at the Sundance Film Festival, gives us great insight into contemporary independent cinema, her influences, and the importance of both film festivals and digital distribution for filmmakers on a budget.


Read the full article here.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

[280] Humpday (2008) Review

As Humpday is now on release in the UK, here's a review I wrote a couple of months ago for Screenjabber.




A glance at the synopsis - hell, even the poster - of Humpday will send off 'bromance' alarms. Indeed, its high concept plot about the relationships between male friends is trite and badly timed, as it enters a marketplace over-stuffed with films with high concept plots about the relationships between male friends. But, with a sharply observant script, and a roughshod charm, it manages to be stirring and probing, as opposed to tepid or hackneyed.

Married early-30s couple Ben (Duplass) and Anna (Delmore) are trying for a baby, when into their lives barges Andrew (Leonard), Ben's old college buddy. A Kerouac-worshipping free spirit, Andrew manages, in no time, to hook up with a group of local bohemian artists and, after entangling Ben in their dope-and-drink-fuelled shenanigans, the duo make a hasty drunk-and-stoned pledge: that they would create an entry for an amateur porn film competition together.


Read the full article here.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

[279] Den of Geek's Film of the Year 2009

Den of Geek have just put up their collaborative Film of the Year article. I contributed my top 5, with my arm twisted behind my back. I will still be compiling my (unranked) films of the year later in the month; but, for the time being, here is my selection.




1. Let The Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (review)
2. Coraline (review)
3. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (review)
4. Moon
5. A Serious Man (review)

This is a tough year to rank. I could easily fill a top 10 with films that are all very close in my estimation - so picking an ordered 5 is a particular form of punishment. For the purposes of this, and to make it easier, I've chopped out any films that technically belonged to 2008 (shout outs to Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, Steven Soderbergh's Che), leaving a good five choices that were all given a general release in the last twelve months. Handily, I've reviewed four of my picks for this very site, and the other is no doubt on many others' lists, so I can be brief (and you can click away for more info, if you're so inclined).

Let The Right One In is a beguiling and revolutionary masterpiece, reinventing the supernatural genre just as Twilight is making it mainstream and dull. Coraline is, likewise, a great literary adaptation, twinning Neil Gaiman's tight, chilling children's book with the creative genius of Henry Selick; it also caps off one of the strongest years for animation that I have lived through - with Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Ponyo (general release in 2010, unfortunately) all deserving heaps of praise and regard. It's certainly going to be an interesting fight for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards early next year.

Already a (deserved) Oscar winner for the outstanding Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Woody Allen's best film in a long while. It is a mix of his quirky, neurotic comedy moments, psycho-philosophical ruminations and dramatic character interactions that emerges as a perfect novella film, with brilliant performances all round. The appeal of Moon is rooted in Sam Rockwell's load-bearing, one-man turn - and deserves notice for that at the very least - but the whole film is a serious, atmospheric triumph. Speaking of serious, The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man may not be a crowd-pleaser, but it ties together their best traits - bold characters, sharp dialogue, moments of surreal barminess - and combines them with what is their richest narrative yet.


Read the full article, with other writers' picks and the tallied list here.

Friday, 18 December 2009

[278] Jon Landau Interview

Here concludes my coverage of the Avatar press junket, a roundtable interview with Jon Landau. He seemed like quite a warm, savvy gent. The group of us bumped into him in the corridor, after we were told to wait, and he just invited us into his room - and later told the PR that we'd started late, so we could throw in another question.



Avatar is out today, and we're capping off our coverage of last week's swanky Claridges-based press junket with an interview with producer Jon Landau. A charming, affable gent, Landau started his career producing films such as Dick Tracy and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, before first collaborating with James Cameron on True Lies. Subsequently, he jumped ship to work with Cameron on Titanic, a move that won him an enviable amount of awards.

In this roundtable session, the assembled, hard-nosed journos were intent on grilling Landau about Avatar's inflated budget, as well as the price of 3D exhibition, and the production's dealings with Fox, Murdoch and News Corporation.


Read the full article here.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

[277] Easy Rider (1969) Blu-ray Review

Easy Rider is one of my favourite films. It is one of those great confluences of cinematic art and popular culture, with such a rich backstory in terms of its countercultural leanings and its production anecdotes. I've written about it at great length before, in an essay I wrote back in Birmingham on the American counterculture of the 1960s, but I was glad to have the chance to write a more straight-up essay/review for Den of Geek. This is also my first Blu-ray review; I'm not sure I'll be doing many in the future, though, because my audio-visual set-up just isn't up to the task.




A friend of mine once called Easy Rider 'the most random film ever'; that is not a very good assessment. It is one of those early landmarks in what is called the New Hollywood movement in American cinema from the late 1960s onwards which have been superseded by more accomplished, accessible and - importantly - popular films from the 1970s. Nevertheless, it retains an integral place in the history of the art form, and its ambitions, intentions and perspective still ring true to the present day.

Case in point: with Easy Rider, the lunatics were in control of the asylum. Essentially a low-budget, independent style project, erstwhile actors Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, acting as director and producer respectively, developed the film with the funding of Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, the young industry boffins that had made big bucks by smuggling the counterculture into the mainstream with The Monkees. The two were given creative freedom to work on their idea: a motorcycle road movie with two enigmatic modern-day cowboys surveying post-Kennedy America.


Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

[276] Avatar Press Conference Report

And here's more material from the Avatar press junket, namely the over-stuffed press conference at Claridges.




Avatar is out this week, so we're stoking your anticipatory flames with material from last week's London-based press junket. Held in the ballroom of Claridges, it was all fittingly opulent for such a big, expensive film release. In attendance at the press conference were writer-director James Cameron, producer Jon Landau and cast members Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the questions were directed at Cameron - or Jim, as most overly-chummy journos were calling him - about his design inspirations for Avatar, his experiences working with Weaver again after 20 years, the implications of the VFX technology used on the film, and even giving some tantalising comments on the possibility of an Avatar sequel, or trilogy! Read on, true believers!


Read the full article here.

[275] Stephen Lang Interview

Here is some material from last week's Avatar press junket. To start with, an interview with actor Stephen Lang.




Ahead of the much-anticipated release of Avatar next week, we had the chance to speak with Stephen Lang, who plays muscly-and-mean marine Colonel Quaritch.

Lang, who goes by the nickname 'slang', has already turned in two memorable performances this year, in Michael Mann's Public Enemies and the film adaptation of Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare At Goats. His larger-than-life appearance as Avatar's antagonist is the jewel of the bunch, capping off a great year for the stage actor, and current co-artistic director of the respected Actor's Studio. A precise, intriguing figure, in this roundtable interview we speak about his theatre and film careers, his fascination with the military, and the movie actors that have inspired him.


Read the full article here.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

[274] Avatar (2009) Review

I realise it's been a little quiet around here of late. I have a couple of reviews waiting to be published at Den of Geek, but otherwise I have been engaged with postgraduate work, or The Finnish Girl visiting. I have so much to tell you about; maybe I'll splurge it in the last couple of weeks of the year.

This week I went to see Avatar, and attended the press junket. The interview material will be up next week, but my review is up now, thanks to weakly upheld embargoes. Check it out below.





Okay, breathe. Avatar is easily one of the most anticipated films of the year - and rightly so. It is a technological marvel, and a return to sci-fi filmmaking from a director that many of the writers, editors and readers of this site consider to be some sort of Cinematic Father Figure - a peddler of pure, imaginative wonderstuff. With James Cameron involved, there is a hope that this will offer something more nourishing, something different from the blockbuster geek fare that we have seen of late. And that's certainly true. So with my spoiler hat firmly on, we're going to wrestle with this huge, beautiful, radiant beast called Avatar.


Read the full review here.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

[273] Disgrace (2008) Review

Starting off the month with a review for Den of Geek, of a film adaptation of a book I haven't read. I'm quite proud that, unlike the majority of my reviews for DoG, this got a comment(!), saying that the last line was a 'humdinger' (and another, less positive, one, which I will hopefully forget about soon enough). Check the review out below.




There have probably been enough column inches dedicated to film adaptations of literary classics to rival the word counts of War And Peace, Atlas Shrugged and Clarissa combined. And now, into the arena steps Disgrace, the silver screen version of the 1999 Booker Prize winning novel by Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee. Having not read the book, I'm entirely incapable of critiquing director Steve Jacobs and writer/producer Anna Maria Monticelli's efforts in this area, but even without a preconceived awareness of the property, it seems that something is missing.


Read the full article here.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

[272] 18 Foreign Language Films You Really Should See

Den of Geek ran another of their irregular collaborative list articles this week, the brief was 'recommend a foreign film'. I wrestled with the idea for some time, and eventually settled on Man Bites Dog. A film I can watch and rewatch, and be affected by with equal power each time. Weirdly, despite the very casual nature of the whole article, many commenters have criticised the writers for not picking films that 'should' be there - such as Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai), or Park's Oldboy.

I got quite riled, really - these are recommendations, and what is the point of choosing a film that people have probably seen? The point of going for 'recommendations' over 'The ## Best Foreign Films' means you can be a bit more idiosyncratic, and enlightening. Striving for objectivity, or using personal taste as some benchmark for objective quality, is a much trickier business. And one I don't like at all. Tough, as we're getting towards the end of the year, and the end of the decade. So I'm going to have to suffer.

In the meantime, check out what I wrote on Man Bites Dog. It's A Good One; You Should See It.




Just one? Cripes. Where to start? This is almost carte blanche to go art-house, to strike a pose and declare 'This Is The Canon'. Something by Jean Renoir? Tarkovsky? How about À bout de souffle? La jetée? 8 1/2? I'll go against all inner urges to whip out the beret and condescend, and instead highlight - for your esteemed consideration - the 1992 Belgian flick Man Bites Dog.

Exhibited at the same Cannes Film Festival as Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs,
Man Bites Dog shares more than just a canine-derived title, offering a similarly comic look at violence and society, with tricks and quirks borrowed from low-budget indie filmmaking. Man Bites Dog is a black and white mockumentary, in which a group of shoe-string filmmakers follow around a hardened serial killer, Benoît (Benoît Poelvoorde). The film mixes up scenes of Ben's day-to-day criminal activities ('I usually start the month with a postman'), and more biographical sequences with his family and friends.

Poelvoorde's gives a powerhouse performance, carrying the film while creating a uniquely bizarre character. Benoît is a gentleman crook, a charismatic drinking buddy, and an effete pseudo-philosopher quick to wax lyrical on architecture and art.
He is also arrogant, bigoted and aggressively self-centered. He plays up to the camera, and before long, the film crew find themselves complicit in his cycle of murders and - most chillingly - a brutal rape. It is a deftly-handled shift from dark comedy to a wholly unsettling commentary on the media's two-way relationship with the horrors of society.

It's a startling piece of work, tinged with a sense of unfulfilled promise, as the three-headed directing-writing-acting team - Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel - have yet to match this early peak in their careers, which, with Belvaux's death in 2006, seems unlikely to ever happen. In
Man Bites Dog, however, they produced a film that was cut from the same cloth as Tarantino, offering a quotable, gripping, stylized crime drama, yet did so with an intelligent, polemical edge that their American counterpart has yet to attain.


Read the full article here.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

[271] Solipsistic Pop #1

I met a girl recently who, after suffering through a good dozen or so minutes of me gesticulating and effusing all over the place, furrowed her brow slightly and mused '...comics? You mean, they still make them?'. I had to restrain myself from showering her with over-compensatory enthusiasm - judging by the situation, I assumed she wasn't the type to appreciate residual zeal-juice dripping off the ceiling onto her shoes. So I closed up the conversation hastily and a bit defensively, before we embarked on a wholly more suitable ensuing topic (East German Cinema, or something like that).





Let's just say that Solipsistic Pop would have been incredibly handy in that conversation. It is the kind of anthology that should be issued to those that respond to comics talk with a vacant 'Quoi?' expression. It starts with a declaration ('It is time for a new paradigm. A new wave of comics') and ends with a rousing battle cry of 'DO EVERYTHING', and is infused with a sense of enthusiasm and pride that can't help but be infectious.

Edited by How to Date a Girl in Ten Days creator Tom Humberstone, Solipsistic Pop brings together new works from some of the best creators around at the moment - some part of the small press 'scene', some from elsewhere. Most importantly, from an immediate point of view, the book looks, feels, smells wonderful. One of the unfortunate roadblocks for small press creators when courting non-fanatics is the (often necessarily, often consciously) cheap production values of their work. Solipsistic Pop has a great weight and presence to it; Philippa Johnson's intricate, understated cover illustrations and the interior's lush, colour pages certainly make an impression.





But what's colour and lushness without content? What's inside is sweet confection for the eyes. As if M&Ms were made into coloured candy eyedrops. There's a real smattering of talent in Solipsistic Pop, including a few names I've mentioned before. Julia Scheele leads the pack with 'My Year as a Christian', an autobiographical piece that tells of a period of her life lived in Honduras, and her attendance at an evangelical Christian school in Tegucigalpa. Most of Scheele's work (at times in collaboration with Matthew Sheret) that I have seen before has been made up of short subjects, or longer pieces that are more evocative than narrative-driven. Here, her distinctive art and bold approach to page layout are married to a touching little story of growing up, and the role of often painful and awkward experience in forming someone's personality.

Just as impressive is a two-page piece by Howard Hardiman, called 'Bondage'. I've said this before, but it is a joy to see Hardiman's work progress and develop, from Badger and Polaroids From Other Lives onwards. 'Bondage' is more like Polaroids than Badger, with external, poetic narration linked with quite observational, snapshot-style artwork. It is a musing on pain and loss, well-evoked and drawn with grace.

Across the board, Solipsistic Pop is an artists' book, and it is quite staggering in this capacity. Moving from Scheele and Hardiman, there is a great diversity, including the welcoming colour-crayon style of 'Spiderwings' by Rachael Reichert, the pink-blue-green minimalism of Robbie Wilkinson's 'Meanwhile...', and reaching a particularly heady explosion of mad expressionism in the nightmarish 'I Never Knew Her', from Andrew Blundell and writer Mike Rimmer.

Of course, Solipsistic Pop isn't the first (or only) anthology with this underground focus (with a recent, similar example being B.A.S.T.A.R.D.S.) but it stands out thanks to some great design ideas. There is a sly nod to the project's small press roots with twominicomics glued in the inside covers, with both (Anna Saunders' Through the Square Window, and Sarah Gordon's Noses) being sterling examples of how to use the form well.





This is a nice addition, but Solipsistic Pop's real coup comes when you hit the centre spread, and find a pull-out section. Folding out to what approaches magazine-size, this supplement features a handful of pieces that really earn the right to a larger page size. Chief among these is the gob-smacking work from Stephen Collins, a veteran newspaper illustration contributor, with his comics 'Sunday Columnist Adventure Stories' and 'Vague Scientist' best displaying his tight design work and gleefully twisted sense of humour. Likewise, the pull-out features Humberstone's own 'The Adventures of... Chicken With Its Head Cut Off' (a contribution to the How Fucking Romantic project), and Mark Oliver's 'Jailbyrd Jim and the Kurse of the Kapital Kode', which bares its Underground Comix influences with pride.





Worthy of a special mention, however, is 'Ninja Bunny and the Broken World', from Philip Spence; usually working in a square, minicomic medium, Spence's work here dazzles, as the story is writ large, in a style that evokes the vertical, colourful ukiyo-e paintings of Hiroshige's Upright Tokaido series.

Gosh, it's all painfully impressive. It's not without its minor hiccups, however, with some little editing mistakes and errors (that only nitpickers and copywriters would notice, to be fair). But this is mighty product, and the fact that it is the first in a potential series of volumes is tantalising. As it is, it is a triumph and a call to arms that is worthy of support. It bears the gift of comics: the joy of words and artwork collided together to make wonders, dreams and nightmares.


Read more about Solipsistic Pop at their website. The book is available online, or from London's Orbital Comics - where there is also an exhibition of (stunning) original artwork, displayed until the end of the month - as well as at the upcoming Lost Treasures of the Black Heart event in Camden, curated by Josie Long. You can listen to an interview with Humberstone, Scheele, Sheret, and Collins at Panel Borders here.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

[270] A Serious Man (dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009) Review

More words from me spilled about a film I enjoyed. This time, the new effort from the Coen Brothers.




Initially, I thought it seemed like lazy promotional shorthand that A Serious Man, the new film from the Coen Brothers, had been referred to as their 'Jewish film'. However, after watching it, there are few better descriptions that come to mind, as the brothers conjure up another dark, quirky comedy that manages to be both character-driven and oddly metaphorical. A film that is just as much about the Jewish-American experience, as it is about faith, religion and ideology in the face of the bleakness of modern life.

It is all-encompassing in its Jewishness (there are four credited as 'language and liturgy' advisers, and two 'Yiddish translators'), yet still proves to be as humorous, daring and barmy as their best work, with its closest siblings, no doubt, being The Big Lebowski or Barton Fink.


Read the full article here.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

[269] Devi / Goddess (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1960) DVD Review

Here's another DVD review from Screenjabber, this time of Satiyajit Ray's Devi (Goddess).




Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray followed up his ambitious, landmark Apu Trilogy in 1960 with Devi (Goddess), a relatively low-key, hemmed-in affair that exhibits a sharper edge to the filmmaker's art. Adapted from a story by Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee, which was in turn inspired by the work of Nobel Prize-awardee Rabindranath Tagore, Devi focuses on familiar themes of both Tagore and Ray's work, such as the collision between the modern and traditional worlds. However, here, the over-riding tone is darker and more caustic, as Devi more concretely plays out the conflict between religious fanaticism and rational thought.


Read the full article here.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

[268] Lynch (one) DVD Review

A couple of DVD reviews I wrote for Screenjabber have finally been put online. Here is the first, a piece on a documentary about David Lynch, and the creative processes behind Inland Empire. I wrote this back in June.




David Lynch's films are often inscrutable, inspired and indulgent in nature. However, the work seems at odds with the unassuming demeanour of the director himself, who stands by his self-written, cheeky biography of 'Filmmaker. Born Missoula, MT. Eagle Scout.' Lynch (One) is an impressionistic, artful sort of documentary, directed by an anonymous band of filmmakers under the moniker blackANDwhite, which attempts to get to grips with the artist and his work.


Read the full article here.

Friday, 20 November 2009

[267] The First Day of the Rest of Your Life / Le premier jour du reste de ta vie (The First Day of the Rest of Your Life (2008) Review

Even though I didn't think this film was that good, I was completely set on fire by its cultural aspects. As I say in the review, The First Day of the Rest of Your Life is teeming with American cultural references. There are two sequences where characters quote from Hollywood films, but not in English, in French, from the dub.

I am now almost a term into my MA in History of Film and Visual Media at Birkbeck. So far, I have assumed that my research project would continue the work on translation theory that I have previously done in a literary field, but instead focusing on filmic translation - namely subtitling and dubbing. Seeing this film, especially with its display of dubbing and cultural markers, has given me quite a lot to think on - and probably a direction to pursue.




The First Day of the Rest of Your Life (Le premier jour du reste de ta vie) is an award-winning, French family comedy-drama with a twist. Attempting to defy formula, writer-director Rémi Bezançon has structured the film in a chapter-like fashion, with each segment corresponding to five different days over a twelve year period, charting the lives of the 5-strong Duval family. Running with the title concept, each chapter relates to a different integral moment in the characters lives - be it eldest son Albert's (Pio Marmaï) moving away from home, or daughter Fleur's (Déborah François) sixteenth birthday - while navigating the poles of melodrama and nostalgia that seem endemic to the genre.

While the film has a pleasant, easy charm, the whole project gives off a sense of the contrived. Moments of levity and comedy can often be sickly sweet, moments of trauma are sudden and heavy-handed, and emotions are always foregrounded, seemingly without regard for the logic of character interiority. This makes the characters feel a little schizophrenic, and their world feels squeaky clean, even a little claustrophobic - with the polished, wistful cuddliness of a Richard Curtis film. Although, the broad canvas gives Bezançon the opportunity to bring up plenty of key family moments, that are picked and presented for maximum sentimentalism - with the death of a family dog being the starting point for a collective lifetime of loves, deaths and relationships.


Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

[266] Laura Howell: Comic Pie / Tales from the Crust

I'm still rummaging through the pile of comics that I've picked up over the last couple of months. I'm hoping to eventually highlight a few, and post comments on them. Bear with me.

I met Laura Howell at the MCM Expo, and was immediately taken with her two minicomics Comic Pie and Tales from The Crust. Not that I tend to judge books by their covers, but, well, that's exactly what I did. They're awesome, humorous evocations of both EC Tales from the Crypt and Action Comics style cover images. Check them out!







Dodgy former photo, I know, but wow. The two books cherry-pick pieces from Howell's two Strip-A-Day Spectacular projects, from January 2007 and earlier this year respectively. Something immediately noticeable as you flick through the books is how versatile she is as an artist and storyteller. She easily slips from style-to-style, bringing intelligence and an often twisted sense of humour to a lot of the strips. Most are short, one-page pieces, but there are a couple of longer stories, such as the tale of a rat who discovers the meaning of life, or an autobiographical reminiscence about video shops and horror films.





Both books are chock-full of bonkers, brilliant stuff. It was only afterwards that I found out that Howell is a full-time contributor to The Beano, and created The Mighty M, about an aspiring rock band, that was my favourite strip in The (now defunct) DFC. Wholly impressive stuff! I can't wait to see more from her.





To find out more about Laura Howell, visit her site here, or read her webcomic about The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert and Sullivan here.

Friday, 13 November 2009

[265] We Live in Public (dir. Ondi Timoner, 2009) Review

Last week, I had a really fascinating discussion with my good friend, and upcoming documentary filmmaker Edward Szekely, about the nature of the documentary film as a genre/movement/mode of expression. We came from entirely different angles: I, probably revealing my journo-critical roots, see documentary as non-fiction narration of history, theory, criticism or people; he sees it as much wider, encompassing documenting in a larger capacity. Our point of departure was probably Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, and Ron Fricke's Baraka, which are purely cinematic, non-verbal documents of life, industry, and other aspects of earthly existence.

I'd more likely describe them as art films, but then again I'm coming from the point of view of journalistic commentary and purpose - something that is either lost or made oblique by the lack of narration, and sole reliance on the films' (utterly staggering) use of cinematography and editing for a creation of 'meaning'. Nevertheless, he has a point - when one accepts all filmed content as a document of a time-and-place, then there is plenty of documentary-like material out there to discover, not unlike the use of everyday, non-artistic texts in linguistic and cultural criticism. It's a discussion I'd like to revisit someday.

Sadly, We Live In Public isn't fully satisfactory for either of those definitions.




It is, no doubt ironic that, as soon as I had finished watching We Live In Public, the new documentary from DiG! director Ondi Timoner, I posted a 140-character micro-review on Twitter. The film is squarely focused on Josh Harris, an Internet visionary who, during the 1990s, spearheaded a number of projects, experiments and services that anticipated much of how our relationship with the web would develop in the first decade of the 2000s. If you've not heard of Harris, don't worry; he was one of the generation of tech-geeks that burned quickly and brightly during the American dot-com boom of the 1990s, before fizzling out and disappearing into obscurity, bankruptcy and self-imposed exile not long into the new millennium. Timoner's documentary, not unlike DiG!, is cobbled together from footage shot through her long liaison with the film's subject, and at times lacks the perspective that would facilitate a compelling character study.


Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

[264] Harry Brown (dir. Daniel Barber, 2009) Review

This was the first - and only - screening I was able to take The Finnish Girl along to when we lived together. She didn't like the film, and I did (with some big reservations). Bonus, though - Michael Caine was at the screening! I had a complicated reaction to this film - but I think that it is worth seeing. Read my review below.



Michael Caine is having a stellar year. After appearing in the most crowd-drawing of blockbusting money spinners, The Dark Knight, in 2008, he has eased back into his part-time role as patron to the British independent cinema sector, with two roles that are testament to his real talent.

Back in May, he appeared in low-key drama Is Anybody There? as Clarence, an aging, dementia-suffering magician. Now, he stars in Harry Brown, another small-budgeted indie, this time a chilling thriller from first-time director Daniel Barber. Ostensibly billed as a 'modern urban western' by the creative and publicity teams, Harry Brown is a more complex melange of a film, just as much a showcase for Barber's versatility as Caine's acting.


Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

[263] Comica '09 -- Dark We Were & Golden Eyed / Comiket

We're currently neck-deep in Comica season at the moment, and I went down to the ICA over the weekend to check out two of the impressive programme's events.

Dark We Were and Golden-Eyed was a panel conversation event with guests including artists Brian Bolland and Bryan Talbot, comics retailers Phil Clarke and Derek 'Bram' Stokes, and Forbidden Planet and Titan Books co-founder Mike Lake. The topic at hand was 'The Birth of American Comics Fandom in Britain' in the 1960s and 1970s, and the discussion was lively and heartwarming.





While Lake, the chair of the event, had come along armed with slides of various photographs and scans, the discussion frequently collapsed into the sharing of half-remembered anecdotes, such as Clarke getting his stream of comics from a connection at a local US Air Force base, Lake attending the first British Comics Convention in Birmingham (which cost Clarke £111 to put on) the week before travelling down to London to see The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, or Stokes opening his shop - Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed - on Berwick Street, paying £36 a week rent, and reimbursing young surveyor Dave Gibbons in comics for sorting out a new staircase for the building.

It was fascinating and welcoming, and a great insight into the personal side of being a comics fan in the time before Diamond Distribution, and before there were comic shops both large and small at which fans and enthusiasts could congregate, where issues would be transported as ballast on freight ships, and young comic lovers could only communicate and hone their craft through mail order lists and self-published zines.





Skip forward 40 years in comics culture - or a day later in Comica's 2009 calendar - and we have the Comiket, a comics market that features some of the best small press, self-published, independent creators currently active. I went to this event last year, and it was my first London-based comics excursion, but this year it had moved down into the ICA theatre, with seemingly even more exhibitors in attendance; if last year was 'packed to bursting' with talent and punters, this year was vacuum-sealed for maximum creativity-per-square-inch.





I like to think I'm getting more well-versed with the small press 'scene', and now recognise a fair deal of people at this sort of event - such as Howard Hardiman, Marc Ellerby, Jamie McKelvie, and the We Are Words + Pictures collective. However, I was surprised, and deeply impressed, by a number of stalls that had seemingly sprung out of nowhere (with regards to my awareness, anyway) - from the beautifully grotesque expressionism of My Eye Is On Fire, to the colourful artwork of Nobrow, or the slightly glum wonkiness of Nicolas Saloquin. Also a surprise were two stalls from art colleges, namely the Atlantic Press and Ink Soup! spreads, which were displaying the developing talents of students at University College Falmouth and the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design respectively.





Lots of beautiful stuff, but I had committed my budget to one purchase: the sumptuous Solipsistic Pop, an anthology of some sterling work from plenty of characters on the small press scene (it is edited by Tom Humberstone, and features work from Philip Spence, Julia Scheele, Hardiman, and Matthew Sheret, among many others). It's a very well put together artifact, with a pull-out section, and two extra mini comics for good measure. I'll hopefully write more about it at a later point, but for the moment I cannot recommend it strongly enough. Check out their site for details and extracts.





Another nice touch of the Comiket event was an elongated collaborative piece of artwork, placed on the ICA's corridor wall, with exhibitors invited to take a line from a famous British graphic novel (reportedly Watchmen, according to Sarah McIntyre, whose photos of the piece are excellent), and create designs of their own. It was quite staggering, really, seeing the diversity of talent - otherwise represented in the stuffy claustrophobia of the stalls - splashed out on the wall for all to see. Lovely!





Comica runs until November 26th, for more details visit the festival's site here.