Tuesday, 30 March 2010

[322] Shank (2010) Review

This is my first review for Film4.com. Too bad it wasn't a better film. Shank is, frankly, awful. Some promise and a great premise - shooting on the Heygate and Aylesbury Estates (which are a stone's throw from where I live), a near-future setting, and a pummelling grime soundtrack.

It's a film of firsts, being the debut feature film credits from director Mo Ali and screenwriter Paul van Carter - not to mention the first original production from veteran distributor Revolver Entertainment - and it does come off as a cocksure, immature attempt.

I also feel terribly sorry for the copywriter tasked with handling the press pack. A big, double-sided glossy number that features a 'survivor's guide', a glossary, and a strange list of binaries about the differences between 2010 and the fictional 2015 ('Nice house vs slum house', 'iPod vs mic: they may not have iPods anymore, but MCs can still spit fire live', 'Gun vs shank', 'Gold chain vs paperclip chain'). It's a riot - topped off by a section dedicated to 'Broken Britain' style clippings, as if that is to give the film some depth or dimension as commentary. If I ever feel particularly mean-spirited, I might post more about it in the future.

In the meantime - here's the review!

No, this isn't a documentary on lamb-loving foodies, this is real urban life, man. Albeit a vision of a prospective future urban life, where guns have been superseded by crude knives - the shanks of the title - to be wielded by rudderless yoofs.

This is 2015: an exaggerated economic downturn has rendered South London a gang-ruled, concrete wasteland, with food scarce but violence rife. At the centre of this chaos is the Paper Chazers gang, a rag-tag bunch of peaceful outsiders, who trade scavenged 'munchies' for money. This is a sweet set up, making moves towards a very British answer to the speculative sci-fi of
The Warriors or Escape From New York, where contemporary social issues, and gloomy city streets, provided canvas for imagination and action.

Shank soon becomes a little awkward, however, with its ambition tempered by uneven execution and a lazy grasp. It all kicks off with a slow-motion, high contrast shuffle through the dystopic streets, as we follow Junior (Kedar Williams-Stirling), the youngest of the Paper Chazers, who acts as our guide through his council estate hell. "Streets proper sticky deez days", he mumbles, as quick cuts lock in time with slamming grime beats. At a dingy market, trotters are luxury food, and a fresh apple is big business.

Read the full article here.

Friday, 26 March 2010

[321] Warwick Thornton Interview

Sometimes, interviews just work. Warwick Thornton was jet-lagged, and the Barbican isn't the best venue for recording, but I thought the conversation flowed well. Samson & Delilah is an interesting film, and there is a lot to discuss about it. I had to cut out 2/3s of the transcript, so I might post up those snippets at a later date.

'They're teenagers who are in love... they're neglected and they're homeless' - As his award winning feature-length debut Samson & Delilah opens the London Australian Film Festival, writer-director Warwick Thornton speaks to Mike Leader about documentary realism, non-professional casting, and communicating the contemporary aboriginal experience.

In the production notes for the film, you said that this was a story about the Aboriginal experience that you needed to tell. However, the film doesn't try to shock the viewer with moments of violence or exploitation.

They're kinda accepted. This is a pretty tragic film, it's pretty dark, and there are a lot of issues in it that I wanted to get off my chest. Other filmmakers would create cause and effect, and that would be the turning point of the film, the third act, and it would be bigger than Ben Hur. But it's not like that. Life's not like that. You walk away, dust yourself off, and you keep moving. I wanted the characters to be strong about it.

The approach to the script, and the film's style, is quite minimal, with the characters - and Samson in particular - having hardly any dialogue at all. You need sympathetic, strong actors to communicate those characters - what was it like working with the young actors, Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson?

You need good characters. There's a lot of actors who can't act, but they're good at choosing characters, and choosing scripts. And that's how they get through. I was very fortunate to find those two kids, because they could act. It was the first time that they'd been in films, but they were both 13, and both of them had 13 years of almost rehearsal for the roles, growing up in these communities.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

[320] The Blind Side (2009) Review

If the Academy Awards are going to have 10 Best Picture nominees, they need better potential winners than The Blind Side. Otherwise, I certainly do not see the point.

So you thought that Avatar was a baffling choice for Best Picture Oscar glory. Well, it's a subtle master-stroke in comparison to The Blind Side. Based on the true story of American football player Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), The Blind Side stars Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, an affluent Memphis mom who takes in a poor black child, providing him with the means and support to fulfil his promise as a college sportsman.

Michael is a gargantuan figure, a giant whose stature is only dwarfed by his own big, cuddly heart. In and out of foster homes and social care since a young age, he starts the film sleeping on a friend's sofa, and, through a timely display of his athletic abilities in front of high school teacher Coach Cotton (Ray McKinnon), gets admitted to the Christian private school attended by the Tuohy family. Once taken in, interior designer Leigh Anne takes a special interest in furthering his career both in the classroom and on the field.

Sure, you get it. It's a heart-warming tale of kindly white folks helping out those socially neglected minorities. It soon becomes less important that this is based on truth (and it is, as a slideshow of news footage and photographs mixes the actors with their real-life counterparts at the end of the film), as
The Blind Side makes for utterly mawkish, patronising viewing.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

[319] The Merry Gentleman (2008) DVD Review

I couldn't resist, really. The latest Harry Partridge animation isn't a good as his previous work, but it fit very well into introducing the review of Michael Keaton's first film as a director, The Merry Gentleman.

A recent video by animation virtuoso Harry Partridge was a broadside slap to the face of Tim Burton, taking potshots at his repetitive kookiness and stale flights of tiresome fancy. Halfway through the short, a mystified Johnny Depp, lost in the director's purple imagination, vows to escape, only to be told 'those who try are never heard from again...', only for the shot to pan to a statue-in-silhouette, a memorial of Michael Keaton.

It was certainly a bizarre landscape for those scant years when Keaton was close to being an A-list actor, but apart from appearing as the same character in two Elmore Leonard adaptations (
Jackie Brown and Out Of Sight), he has vanished off the radar somewhat. The Merry Gentleman is his directorial debut, and is the kind of unassuming, low-budget, performance-led piece that suits a first-timer.

Kelly Macdonald leads as Kate Frazier, a Scot in Chicago. Working in an office by day, she leaves one evening to see Frank Logan (Michael Keaton) standing on the edge of the facing building's roof, seemingly ready to jump. Her scream convinces him otherwise, but this act might have been a little hasty, as Frank, despite the suicidal streak, is a fierce hitman.

Read the full article here.

[318] An Education (2009) DVD Review

It happens every few dozen articles or so. I freeze up and can't work through the piece. I'm not so happy with the way this review turned out, as it was such a slog, but I think I made my points clear. An Education is a lovely film, and is highly recommended.

I watched the film with my good old chum Nishani Nijjar, the comedy lawyer - not that she is a farcical student of the courts, more that she combines sharp work suits, a respectable career, and an eye for mirth. Watch out for her. You can read her travel writing over at www.liamandnish.co.uk, where she chronicled a three month-long trip to Madagascar with our mutual friend Liam James - who, I must add, is not a lawyer but a man of many rare talents.

Back on topic. An Education, then...

An Education, director Lone Scherfig's film about coming of age in 1960s suburban London, may not have taken home many statuettes over the awards season, but that is more of a comment on the bias and tastes of academy voters than the quality of the piece, as it is sweet, engrossing and a little bit subversive.

BAFTA winner Carey Mulligan stars as Jenny, a 16-year-old girl of a certain intelligence that towers over her peers and parents, yet is still bound by the niceties of domestic life and the hoop-jumping of school. (Ah, to be a teenager.) She has Oxford in her sights, as does her overbearing father, who, in an early scene, states that the university would be impressed by her orchestra attendance, as she would seem to be a 'joiner-inner'.

Jenny, however, stands apart. She is youthful in expression, but has a grit to her voice that belies a certain edge. She peppers her speech with French phrases and aces English essays. Her school friends are ineffectual saps and giggling girls. Her parents and teachers are stuffy old sellouts.

So, it is no surprise that the world conjures up David (Peter Sarsgaard), a cultured, rich man that comes into her life, indulges her whims and grants her escape from tedium and uncertainty. He introduces her to jazz and cocktails, and takes her to classical concerts, art auctions and, eventually, Paris. As her grades slip and enthusiasm for the academic slog fades, Jenny becomes entranced by the possibility of a life with this mysterious man.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

[317] No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009) Review

Is there a more puzzling underground music scene than that of Iran? If you follow the western media's reporting of tough crackdowns on gigs and club nights, it seems stuck between heavy regulation, outright disdain, and tentative blossoming. Seeking to get beyond the headlines and potential ideological bias is Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi's No One Knows About Persian Cats.

One of the film's frustrating conflicts is presented immediately. Ghobadi's desire to present this youthful, radical slice of Iranian society in a documentary style, showing off the diversity of bands and the pressures on performers, jars with the decidedly fictional narrative style given to the film, which features real bands but a made-up story.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

[316] Dancing With The Hollywood Hegemony: Cultural Domination and Expression in French Cinema

Here is a long-form essay I wrote for my MA a couple of months ago, on the intricate dance between pop-culture references and cultural domination, as seen in French cinema - with a cut-down bibliography and no footnotes. Enjoy!


One of the major issues affecting the international cinema community is the influence of American culture on smaller national industries. This 'hegemony of Hollywood movies', as described by David Puttnam in his book The Undeclared War, is a wing of the cultural and economic domination that the superpower has enjoyed for a significant portion of the last century. While this has had more of an acute effect on national film industries in terms of exhibition - with American product generally outweighing local works - this also provides rich material for discussion of the production and textual aspects of films from those specific cultures. In the introduction to his overview of the nation's filmmaking, Phil Powrie declares that 'of all world cinemas, it is perhaps French cinema that matters most in the struggle against Hollywood domination', citing that the country's focus on cultural specificity, its long tradition of state-sourced subsidies for native production, and its firm belief in film as the 'seventh art' make it a uniquely anti-American cinema culture.

However, it can be seen that alongside America's economic domination there exists a cultural colonisation that manifests throughout the world in the form of an international cultural language, made up of Anglophonic popular culture - such as fashion, literature, music, video games and, of course, the movies of Hollywood. This more subtle form of imperialism-through-entertainment creates a potentially nightmarish situation, where it would be, in the words of Puttnam, 'quite possible for Europeans brought up on cinema and visiting America for the first time, to feel that they were arriving home’. In this essay, I will use examples of French films to explore how pieces of art from this culture dance with Hollywood - and, by extension, Anglophonic - cultural hegemony while still retaining a semblance of ‘Frenchness’. I will spotlight a number of eras and films that illustrate this, such as the French New Wave and the 1980s Heritage Cinema movement, before using examples from early 21st Century French cinema to reveal the current, complex intertextual landscape of expression and identity.

The relationship between France and Hollywood cultural expansionism can be traced back to the early days of Hollywood's Golden Age, when, in 1930 Rene Jeanne published an essay titled 'The American Cinematic Invasion', where he spoke of 'a deliberate plan carefully nurtured and patiently put into practice by the leaders of the American film industry' to convert the French cinema-goers into a sympathetic audience for States-sanctioned concepts, starting with the re-shaping of recent history seen in a MGM depiction of the First World War. Furthermore, the film industry of France was greatly affected by post-war trade agreements with the USA - which Puttnam describes as 'little short of a disaster', as these treaties 'swamped' France with Hollywood product, indirectly causing the closure of over half the nation's film studios by 1947, and even bringing across highly visible examples of American iconography, such as Coca Cola.

It was, in part, in response to such a 'commodification of cinema' that the critics of Cahiers du cinéma developed their discourse surrounding the politiques des auteurs, which also informed the filmmaking of the critics-turned-directors - Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette - that spearheaded the French New Wave in the late 1950s. However, to define the work of these filmmakers as purely anti-American would be false, as not only did they individually find influence from certain Hollywood filmmakers, but Truffaut in particular was just as critical towards certain elements of the French film industry, as seen in his attack on le cinéma de papa in the essay 'Une certaine tendance du cinéma français'. Indeed, this is one of the many paradoxes that surround the New Wave - a movement more unified by context than by a coherent stylistic vision. Nevertheless, the treatment of Hollywood by certain New Wave auteurs is nuanced and highly intertextual, with their approach to signifiers, symbolism and whole genres of the cinema bearing the mark of acute respect and strident re-appropriation. Indeed, Forbes describes that while the New Wave work in primarily American genres - the crime thriller in particular - they, in the process, bend the generic rules to suit their expression, concluding that the 'references to Hollywood cinema have a serious point as well as being a set of winks, nods and in-jokes'.

One of the New Wave directors that most exhibits this sense of winking at the audience is Jean-Luc Godard, whose films also display a manhandling of American culture for the purpose of his art. While he was not the first French director to appropriate the styles and aesthetics of thrillers in a French context, his debut feature, À bout de soufflé (Breathless, 1960), is steeped in American culture, with Jean-Paul Bemondo's character, Michel's adulation for Hollywood star Humphrey Bogart - and his mimicry of the actor's affectations and mannerisms - being one of the more iconic and well-known elements of New Wave cinema as a whole. However, through such references, the American culture is brought under Godard's auteuristic yoke, as through the use of naturalistic acting, location shooting and other stylistic flourishes he works to create a unique aesthetic - successfully accomplishing 'the superimposition of these Americanisms on a French landscape' (Kline).

(Fig.1, ‘Bogey…’)

It is this superimposition of American techniques, citations and homages on French landscapes that often to come to define more popular examples of French cinema that captures the attention of international - as well as local - audiences and critics. Indeed, in a more contemporary sphere, this is becoming all the more relevant - where American influences can be found in a complex array of references, themes, topics and production aspects of these films, where the essence of 'Frenchness' is contested or reshaped in order to incorporate such elements of expression. The anxiety over retaining a necessarily French identity had a great influence over the film industry's character in the 1980s, where the Mitterand government introduced special legislation that would support films that 'through their narratives, locations and stars, actively celebrated traditional French values and achievements', working towards, according to Cousins, '[winning] back audiences from Hollywood blockbusters disseminating seductive but alien values'. These funding initiatives birthed an era of large budgeted, lavish 'Heritage cinema' productions that were either adapted from canonical texts of French literature, or focused on great lives or events in French history, with some of the most successful of these starring actors such as Gérard Depardieu, and being directed by Claude Berri (1986's Jean de Florette, or 1993's Germinal).

While some areas of the French film industry sought to look inwards, with Heritage cinema and other successful comedies, such as the urban buddy cop farce Les ripoux (Claude Zidi, Le cop, 1984) or the eventually Americanised Trois hommes et un couffin (Coline Serreau, Three Men and a Cradle, 1985), the period also overlapped with the rise of new French filmmakers that were unafraid to once more negotiate with Hollywood on their terms, this time specialising in specific genres, such as sci-fi, action and horror. The most prominent of these directors include Luc Besson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (working either alone or with his collaborator Marc Caro) and Christophe Gans, who play with the American/French binary in films such as Subway (Besson, 1985), Nikita (Besson, 1990), The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997), Delicatessen (Jeunet and Caro, 1991), Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (Jeunet, 2001), and Le Pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Gans, 2001).

Luc Besson, in Powrie's estimation, found lasting fame, success and respect due to the way that he 'emulated American filmmaking' in his output. Indeed, it is true that in films like Subway and Nikita, Besson, like Godard before him, utilised the American genres of the thriller and action film to create a stylish, French aesthetic that was typical of the cinema du look movement of the 1980s. Besson's success was equally local and international, which led to his films receiving as much attention in America as in France. The director's approach in the light of this is particularly interesting, especially regarding the interplay between Hollywood and French cultural influences in his work in the 1990s. Léon (1994), despite being a Gaumont production and starring Frenchman Jean Reno, was an all-English language film, a tight, bloody thriller that fit comfortably within the cinema mileu of the early 1990s, typified by the stylised, genre-bending (and, perversely, New Wave-influenced) films of Quentin Tarantino.

However, it would be Besson's follow-up to Léon where his strident, auteuristic approach to Hollywood cinema would manifest - in the ambitious The Fifth Element. Again, this was a Gaumont production, but with an American and British cast including Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich and Ian Holm, as Besson created a futuristic sci-fi adventure in a technologically advanced New York. While Besson overtly dances with Hollywood genre and filmmaking with The Fifth Element, there are major aspects of the production that are calculated to give the film an unmistakably French identity. Early on in the creative stages of the pre-production, Besson called on the design talents of the highly influential and revered French comic book (Bande Dessinée) artists Jean-Claude Mézières and Jean Giraud (also known as Moebius) to help develop the world of the film.

(Figs. 2 and 3, frames from Valerian: The New Future Trilogy that influenced The Fifth Element, art by Jean-Claude Mézières)

Likewise, The Fifth Element's costumes were designed by noted (and ever distinctive) French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. This gave the film a unique aesthetic, and presented the international audience - no doubt attracted by its spectacle and star power - with a film that, while packaged like a Hollywood blockbuster, felt - and, importantly, looked - wholly French. That the ensuing product grossed far over $200 million worldwide, comfortably recouping its inflated budget in the process, would suggest that Besson's audacity paid off. Indeed, while this is a far cry away from the New Wave's method of appropriation (by ascribing American style onto a French landscape), Besson boldly subjects Hollywood stylistics to French imagination - using the technology and production techniques of the modern blockbuster to communicate aspects of French culture.

Jeunet is another director who is skilled at using genre films and techniques of what is considered to be Hollywood filmmaking to create a very French aesthetic. His most successful film, Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (hereafter Amélie), attracted not only an impressive box office reception throughout the world, but a significant amount of discussion about the film's visual style and its use of digital filmmaking - seen to be typically American - and its reflection on the film's French identity. The debate is summed up by Ginette Vincendeau, in a contemporaneous feature for Sight & Sound, as follows: 'What's at stake is its depiction of Frenchness: is Jeunet's film virulent, reactionary populism or a postmodern celebration of grassroots identity?'. Vincendeau goes on to describe the film, which centres around the life of a young girl's living in a picture-book version of Paris, as being positioned as evoking the stylistics of 1930s French Poetic Realism, effectively '[exploiting] the latest digital technology to transport the spectator into a bubble of nostalgia'.

In this way, Jeunet is similar to Besson, albeit still working in a rigidly French framework. He uses CG technology and visual effects, such as rich colour palates, digitally-seamless edits and retouched images of the streets of Paris, in order to create an aesthetic of pure imagination and expression - something the director explored previously in the genre-bending post-apocalyptic black comedy Delicatessen (1991). Many critics have positioned Amélie as providing a firmly, boldly French form of filmmaking, opposed to all things American; indeed, both Vincendeau and Vanderschelden describe Amélie in reference to the French comic book series Asterix the Gaul - who was depicted as opposing the invading Roman Empire - as they both 'resist the pressure of dominant cultures'. Raphaelle Moine, furthermore, links Amélie's success with the film's ‘Generic Hybridity’, which is defined as: 'The practice of combining generic features drawn from a national cultural tradition with a form, references and generic paradigms that are at least perceived as belonging to a globalised Neo-Hollywood model...'.

Indeed, while it has been discussed in this essay that such a hybridity is not uncommon in the French cinematic tradition, Moine concludes with a vigorous description of Amélie's cultural profile: 'as far as the film's references go, its decor, geographical boundaries and cultural markers are exclusively French... the film's hybridity remains enclosed within a Parisian space and the French national imaginary...'. While this is a fair observation, and it is true that Jeunet creates a wholly French work, there are still examples of the writer-director playing with American cultural references throughout the film - namely during a sequence where Amélie disguises herself as the American pulp hero Zorro, or with a character (played by Marc Amyot) who is defined by his red Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers. That these intertextual elements are woven into a film that maintains a stridently French identity suggests that Jeunet's expressionistic approach to representing culture makes room for these appropriations of American iconography.

(Figs. 4 and 5, Amélie as Zorro; The Man in the Red Shoes / L'inconnu des photomatons)

Furthermore, this would suggest that the notions of 'Frenchness', especially in relation to American cultural domination, is more complex in the late 20th and early 21st centuries than in the time of the New Wave. Perhaps this is due to the passage of time, and a period of slow assimilation, as it is hard to find a modern equivalent for the anti-American symbolism of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu's treatment of Coca Cola bottles. Indeed, even the most inwardly-focused French films are now replete with Hollywood references, as Moine observes, noting that the second of the recent, highly successful, live-action movie adaptations of the Asterix comics, Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre (Alain Chabat, 2002), heavily references the Star Wars franchise, in the form of musical cues and sight gags.

Another, more extreme, example of American cultural references appearing in an otherwise mainstream French film can be found in Le premier jour du reste de ta vie (The First Day of the Rest of Your Life, Rémi Bezançon, 2008), a family comedy-drama whose cultural footprint is almost entirely American - and Anglophonic by extension - in nature. While telling the story of a five-strong family in five days across a 12 year span, Bezançon uses plenty of non-French intertextual references to anchor both the film and the audience. Each family member's personality and experience are communicated through such references: daughter Fleur (Déborah François), for example, is an angst-ridden, Kurt Cobain-worshipping teenager whose boyfriend is convinced he is the reincarnation of Jim Morrison; likewise, middle child Raphael (Marc-André Grondin) has inherited his dad's (Jacques Gamblin) obsession with rock music, culminating with his entry into an air guitar competition, where father and son engage in a long debate on the greatest guitar solo of all time, which references artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bon Jovi and Black Sabbath.

(Fig.6 ‘Kurt Cobain has died…’, Le premier jour du reste de ta vie)

Equally of note is the film's soundtrack, which features musical cues taken from English language pop, such as David Bowie's 'Time', Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' and Janis Joplin's famous version of 'Summertime'. These pieces are prominently featured in long, languid montage sequences that often bookend a chapter in the story, a stylistic choice on behalf of Bezançon, editor Sophie Reine and director of photography Antoine Monod that very much foregrounds these non-French cultural markers. Conversely, the French songs on the soundtrack, such as the track 'L'Aventurier' by new wave group Indochine, are not singled out, often being used diegetically within the scenes, and the 1998 Etienne Daho song that shares its title with that of the film, reportedly not an influence on the film's creation but a happy coincidence, is saved until the end credits.

Furthermore, meaning is constructed throughout the film with other references, with the relationship between oldest child Albert (Pio Marmaï) and his siblings being illustrated through a flashback involving their re-enactment of a key scene from the Hollywood film The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960). Similarly, Bezançon uses these intertexts to further distinguish between the intended time periods of the film, with 1993 defined by Grunge music, and 1998 featuring a reference to the British-developed video game Tomb Raider, as well as footage from a news report concerning the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

(Fig. 7, ‘Playing Tomb Raider’, Le premier jour du reste de ta vie)

Indeed, this is yet another example of a writer-director using intertexts and cultural references to construct his work. Nevertheless, while Bezançon is similar to Godard, in the way that such quotations are used for a variety of ends, with each having, as Kline notes, 'particular resonances with the scenes in which it occurs as well as the larger movement of the film', there is a feeling that Bezançon's citation of American and Anglophonic culture is not serving the stridently French expression found in the work of Godard, Jeunet or Besson. However, unlike the inward-looking Heritage cinema, or the cultural specificity of French comedies such as the record-breaking, Northern France comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (Danny Boon, 2008), Le premier jour du reste de ta vie is almost self-consciously bidding for an international audience, accepting Anglophonic experience as a form of inclusive, transnational culture.

Even though Le premier jour du reste de ta vie enjoyed only a fraction of the box office success of Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, it did garner three wins out of nine nominations at the César Awards (against les Ch'tis' single nomination). This suggests a complex landscape for French film that negotiates both the insular and the transnational, as well as the critical and the popular. Indeed, the notions of French identity in the country’s film industry are not necessarily as opposed to American filmmaking techniques and Anglophonic cultural markers as in the past. Many recent productions follow Hollywood practice of adapting films from cultural texts (including the recent adaptations of the Astérix, Iznogoud and Lucky Luke comic books), or mounting lavish biopics, seen in the Edith Piaf film La môme (La vie en rose, Olivier Dahan, 2007), the two pictures about the life of gangster Jacques Mesrine (L'instinct de mort and L'ennemi public No. 1, Jean-François Richet, 2008), and Séraphine (Martin Provost, 2008).

That these films have been greeted with success and recognition at the César Awards (each being nominated in the Best Picture category, with Séraphine winning in 2009) would suggest that France is entering a period of entrenchment, harking back to the Heritage period and aligning ‘Frenchness’ closely with French subjects. Nevertheless, even this is more complex than it would initially seem, with La môme particularly rich in American cultural references (to Billie Holliday, as well as the golden era of American radio), and both Mesrine films using the crime thriller genre as a basis, thereby exhibiting the transatlantic hybridity that Moine describes.

Indeed, elements of this hybridity of aesthetics, cultural references and identity can be dated back to the brazen appropriation and subversion seen in the films of Godard and the New Wave, and can be charted through the developments and ambitious successes of Jeunet and Besson, before laying the foundations of the multi-faceted industry to be found in France today. It is an industry that can be in many ways defined by its relationship with Hollywood, and the way its writers, directors and auteurs dance with the American Empire's influence; it is just a question of who is leading.


- Cousins, Russell. 'Jean de Florette', in Powrie, Phil ed. The Cinema of France. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.
- Kline, T. Jefferson. Screening the Text: Intertextuality in New Wave French Cinema. Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.
- Kline, T. Jefferson. 'The French New Wave', in Ezra, Elizabeth, ed. European Cinema. Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Moine, Raphaelle. 'Generic Hybridity, National Culture and Globalised Cinema', trans. Hensher, Jonathan, in Waldron, Darren and Vanderschelden, Isabelle eds. France at the Flicks: Trends in Contemporary French Popular Cinema. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.
- Powrie, Phil ed. and introd. The Cinema of France. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.
- Puttnam, David. The Undeclared War. London: HarperCollins, 1997.
- Vanderschelden, Isabelle. Amélie. London: I.B.Tauris, 2007.

Friday, 12 March 2010

[315] Shutter Island Press Conference Report

I think that Shutter Island is an extraordinary film. Playful and assured. However, the press conference held in anticipation of its release last month was, mostly, a bore. Especially when the guests - Scorsese, DiCaprio, Sir Ben Kingsley - were asked about the film. These are intelligent, eloquent men, but asking about on-set relationships and the trials of performing emotionally-charged roles does not allow much scope for erudite commentary.

Thankfully, Scorsese in particular is a man who will talk about whatever he damn well pleases. That would suggest that it is an active decision, but maybe it is not. His love of cinema and encyclopaedic appetite for film is evident at all times, gushing out and overwhelming his train of thought. It is those moments - when he speaks of the many pictures that influenced his vision for Shutter Island, and when he answers a banal question about director-actor relationships (citing the example of Hitchcock-Stewart) with a freeform chat about Vertigo - that make this a press conference of note.

Shutter Island, the latest film from Martin Scorsese, is released today. Last month, the director sat down with cast members Leonardo DiCaprio and Sir Ben Kingsley at a press conference in London to chat about this dark, psychological thriller.

Ever the film buff, however, Scorsese was just as keen to gush about his myriad influences, the awe-inspiring career of Max von Sydow, and Alfred Hitchcock's
Vertigo, in the process delivering a mini-lecture on what is one of his favourite films.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

[314] Two Months of Loving Film

Back in early January, I received a package through my door. It was a late birthday present from Mike C - a man who likes to sing and ramble - and his ladyfriend. The package contained a copy of the Karl French-edited film book Screen Violence and a voucher for 2 months free membership for LoveFilm, the online DVD rental service.

Within an hour, I'd signed up and logged a rent list of over 200 titles. Eight weeks later, I have rented 22 discs, with 3 more sitting on my desk waiting to be watched.

Part of the absolute genius of LoveFilm is that it is completely of-the-moment. It utilises current technology at every step: rent lists are chosen online, true, but the DVDs (or Blu-Rays) are posted to you, and the customer is supplied with a re-usable envelope to send the discs back. While there are options on their site to stream films, there is very little new media, or pioneering technology at hand.

This is surprisingly refreshing, retaining the tangible quality of receiving physical mail, and working in an element of surprise - as discs are picked according to the whims of stock and supply, not through pre-defined sequencing.

This cooks up some great mini-marathons, such as Peter's Friends followed by Dead Again, followed by The Night Listener. Or a run such as Les 400 Coups (a film about youth), Sleep Furiously (a film about a community lacking in youth), and Only Yesterday (a film reminiscing about youth).

Okay, it falls foul of the problems of non-digital distribution - having to wait for delivery, relying on Royal Mail (especially frustrating given the black hole of Sunday), discs arriving scratched or unreadable - but it works well. As previously noted, I've burned through over 20 films from them, two of which turned up scratched (Les 400 Coups, and Hunger), but both faulty rentals were replaced quickly. Considering that I went for the 'unlimited, 3 disc' package, which normally costs £16.99 a month, I think I'm getting my (theoretical) money's worth. Throw in game rentals, and you might have a brilliant service for those omnivorous souls.

Now, I have to go and choose which film to watch next. It's an interesting line-up: Aus-Western The Proposition, Abel Ferrara's King of New York, or Steve Martin's Shopgirl? We'll see.

In the mean time, here is the full list of the films I've watched (and, on the whole, loved) over the last 2 months. A nice mixture of flicks I missed at the cinema, classics I'd overlooked, or minor gems that had aroused my curiosity.

The Hurt Locker
The Night Listener
In the Loop
Love in the Afternoon
Memories of Murder
District 9
Dead Again
Peter's Friends
Fishing With John
Robinson in Space
London in the Raw
Raging Bull
Encounters at the End of the World
My Dinner With Andre
Only Yesterday
Sleep Furiously
The 400 Blows

Saturday, 6 March 2010

[313] Techno Stories, 27th February

Last week I wandered over to Rich Mix in Bethnal Green to check out the Techno Stories event, put on by the National Youth Theatre and Ideastap. Four groups of young creatives from across the country - Sheffield, Manchester, North and South London - were tasked with tackling various briefs that took the form of a word or phrase, such as 'The Perfect Tree', 'Swarm' and 'Flood'. Each group had a number of weekends to work on their ideas and schemes, and cobbled together a short video presentation to pitch their project(s).

I was there thanks to an invitation from my good friend Edward Szekely, a filmmaker who was part of the South London posse. Their project S'Warm, was stuffed with plenty of ideas, if not distinct goals. Of particular interest are the experiments they conducted with webcams and networked laptops, in order to create real-time digital masks and an invisibility cloak. Segments concerning these can be found towards the end of the video below.

Techno Stories South London-S'Warm from National Youth Theatre on Vimeo.

The biggest surprise of the day was being greeted by the oaken tones of Nick 'Fox' Moran in the Manchester group's project, a 'Subtlemob' titled Flood. The Subtlemob is a variation on the Flashmob concept, but internalising the experience, where participants are provided with audio files for the MP3 players, and are narrated a story, and guided through a number of sequences and actions.

Flood was held at Salford Quays, with punters split into two groups. Each group would receive a different narration, centred on the Lowry footbridge, and an impending flood of catastrophic proportions. It is quite a fascinating concept, especially as a form of new media storytelling - mixing personal audio equipment, radio plays, and the real-world context, creating a hands-off, intimate experience. Their video is below.

Both Sheffield and North London were operating under the 'Perfect Tree' brief, and had similar ideas springing from social media, crafting an online space for collaboration and expression with a decidedly eco-friendly bent.

There is little information about the Techno Stories project online, and the day ended without a real destination for the amassed ideas. However, for further details about similar schemes, check Ideastap and NYT.

[312] Alice in Wonderland (2010) Review

Tim Burton is, probably more than any other filmmaker, the director against whose work I can shape my life. Films like Batman (which I wasn't allowed to see, being 3, but fully comprehended), and Edward Scissorhands (which I did see, on video, aged 5), or the teenage re-discoveries of Beetlejuice, Batman Returns and, most importantly, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Over the last decade, each new Burton film was an event.

Alice in Wonderland is the first film of his that I have reviewed.

Throughout Disney's new, 3D re-imagining of Alice In Wonderland, the odd girl with the blonde hair - now 19, finding herself back in Wonderland to escape the stuffiness of Victorian society - is asked her name by bizarre characters and CGI creations. Their response is uniform: 'The Alice?' croons the Cheshire Cat, voiced by a most decadent, flirtatious Stephen Fry. However, there seems to be a more puzzling question, concerning the film's director: is this the Tim Burton?

No, this must be a different Tim Burton. Sure, there are freaks and kooks - is there an intellectual property more bursting with them? - but while they are twisted to fit a suitably dark take on Wonderland, the narrative is derivative and wafer-thin, with what intriguing ideas that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton bring to the table being trimmed into non-existence by a vacuum-sealed structure.

It is also awkwardly conceived. It is a valid idea to inject Carroll's Alice books, which were always more about cheeky exercises in absurdity and logic than rounded storytelling, with emotional anchors and a workable narrative through line. However, in practice, the film starts to lose both its humour and its distinctiveness; before long, we are treated to Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter, gap-toothed and Bowie-eyed, walking among scorched trees as he intones his way through the sublime nonsense-poem Jabberwocky with utter, Scottish-accented sincerity.

So, Burton has brought a lot of darkness to Wonderland, but this isn't the grotesque drama-comedy seen in his late 80s and early 90s output (
Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns). Instead, Alice In Wonderland is an overwrought fantasy epic, squaring off against Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings as opposed to carving out its own quirky corner of the imagination.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

[311] Alice in Wonderland Press Conference Report

While the press conference for Alice in Wonderland wasn't as farcical as those for Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Men Who Stare At Goats, it was silly enough. Nevertheless, I was able to salvage some tidbits of note from the 40-odd minutes.

Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland 3D is released this week, and has enjoyed a not inconsiderable amount of buzz. Maybe it's the twinning of the oddball-mainstream director with a suitably oddball-mainstream property, maybe it's the stellar cast, featuring Burton regulars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter appearing alongside talent such as Mia Wasikowska, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman.

Hours before the international Royal Premiere for the film, held last week in a rainy London, representatives from the cast and crew were bombarded by inane questions by not only the British regulars, but by a transglobal selection of keen journalists. Sort of like a United Nations Tribunal For Asking The Same Bloody Questions In Different Accents.

In attendance were Depp, Burton, Bonham Carter, Wasikowska, Glover, Hathaway, composer Danny Elfman, and producers Joe Roth and Richard D. Zanuck (but a good half, and I'm sure you can guess which, needn't have bothered turning up).

Below is a trimmed transcript, in which Depp talks about his unique approach to the Mad Hatter, Burton talks about the project and his long-standing collaborations with his favourite actors, and the group discuss whether the film's darkness makes it unsuitable for children.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

[310] Forty-Five, by Andi Ewington et al Review

It's easy to mumble and grumble about superhero comics: endless reboots, reinventions and wallet-draining events, seemingly tailored to maintain a semblance of a status quo and to not provide something truly different. Some readers have to look to the independent or creator-owned sectors for innovation, but even there it is hard for some properties to stand out.

With its bold premise and off-the-wall concept, not to mention an impressive list of contributors (including artistic powerhouses Jock, Lee Garbett and Sean Phillips), Andi Ewington's
Forty-Five makes an intriguing first impression.

Facing the birth of his first child, journalist and soon-to-be-dad James Stanley ruminates over what the world will bring for his son or daughter. This being a society brimming with superheroes, some exhibiting their powers from birth, Stanley is particularly anxious about fathering his own super-spawn. To quell his worries, he engages in an ambitious project to interview dozens of heroes, families and fans, in order to find out if it is possible for these people to live a 'normal' life.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

[309] Film & Festivals, Issue 20

The new issue of Film & Festivals Magazine is now available to read over at their site. This edition, their 20th, is focused on documentary filmmaking, especially those films that take a critical, incisive look at contemporary society (or, as they put it, 'films and filmmakers out to subvert the commonly perceived view of the world').

Key articles this month include interviews with directors such as Chris Atkins (Taking Liberties), and Eric Schlosser and Robert Kenner (Food Inc.), as well as an insightful 'From the Trenches' column on House of Numbers by filmmaker Brent Leung and a rousing feature from Kerry McLeod titled 'The Fire in Our Belly: How Documentaries Inspire Us To Change the World'.

I've been thinking a lot about documentaries at the moment, especially with regards to my ongoing MA work. The documentary film is a surprisingly under-valued side of film art, especially in mainstream circles, so I'm glad to see F&F doing their bit.

It has been a good few months since I last contributed to the magazine, but for this issue I wrote a short review of the Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ, a film that I have talked about before, but one that - I believe - needs all the attention it can get.

You can read Film and Festivals on their site, order a print on demand copy from MagCloud, or download a PDF.

Monday, 1 March 2010

[308] Alice In Wonderland Premiere Report

An exciting development: I'm branching out to write film pieces for Film4.com. Here is my first article, a report from the Royal Gala Premiere for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. This was also my first time covering a premiere, and it was certainly an experience, standing in the rain for four and a half hours. I have some tidbits of interviews that I didn't use in the piece below, including a (very) short chat with Danny Elfman, that I might post up in the near future. For the moment, check out the article below.

It was umbrellas at dusk on Thursday evening at the Royal premiere for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, as the heavy London rain fell indiscriminately on star and bystander alike. Fans of Burton and lead actor Johnny Depp had turned out in droves, with some camping out from early in the morning with the hope of catching a glimpse of the two cult icons.

While some eyes were fixed on the long-standing collaborators, others were treated to a respectable turn-out from the film's stellar cast, featuring talent from both sides of the Atlantic such as Anne Hathaway (The White Queen), Sir Christopher Lee (The Jabberwocky), Crispin Glover (The Knave of Hearts) and Helena Bonham Carter (The Red Queen), the latter sporting a custom-made purse bearing images of her character from the film

Read the full article here.