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Boyhood (US 2014)

Posted by Rona on 24 July 2014

boyhood linklater

Linklater’s latest film appears to be acting as a lightning rod for critical reaction to his work. There is a great deal of review and commentary, a sudden rediscovery of Linklater as auteur,  as he was first embraced when he brought out Slacker during the indie explosion at the end of the 1980s into the early 1990s. Linklater, I think, has suffered from his ability to match form to the material. He has talked about envying the kind of career Vincente Minnelli could have in the Hollywood studio system, directing a wide variety of material on call. For Linklater, this ability has meant that he has been underrated – both in his treatment of form and content. Perhaps a willingness just to direct – such as Bad News Bears – might reduce his value in the eyes of some.  How useful is it to think of him as an auteur, now the term has resurfaced.

The obvious – and great – achievement of Boyhood is how it maintains one consistent tone in the visual appearance of the film, in the performances in filming (shooting on film and not digital) over 12 years. There’s a nice scene, as part of Gabe Klinger’s totally engaging documentary portrait: Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2014) where Linklater shows Benning some of the work-in-progress on Boyhood. Sandra Adair, his long-time collaborator as editor, talks about how their relationship was formed. (Long-time collaboration is a characteristic of auteurs – and Linklater). Slacker – his defining feature (his second feature film) – demonstrates not only the crafting of a complex narrative structure, but Linklater’s passion for a community of literary, philosophical and artistic engagement and his strong roots in Austin, Texas. These traits have been constantly apparent through films from Slacker, through Waking Life (2001)  and up to Bernie (2011). This latter film failed to gain commercial distribution (emphasising how increasingly difficult it is to release independent work, even when you have the kind of name and track-record Linklater does). It represents the parts of East Texas, Linklater’s home turf, with humour, with sympathy and with a writer’s eye for a great story, however uncomfortable the revelations or strong the local feelings about them. (Bernie is after all, a tale of the convicted murderer of an elderly lady and still continues to generate controversy – not least following Bernie Tiede’s release on the basis he lives at Linklater’s property).

Art and life intertwine in the above. Linklater’s work is generally all about connections – in the structure of his films, in the empathic way he draws people so that we recognise their feelings and relate to them strong. However, there is a detached intellect drawing these connections and making them work successfully as narratives in the cinema which avoids sentimentality. This makes me question the parallels made in reviews with documentary, and highlights a crucial difference between what a documentarian is attempting to do compared with a fiction film writer. Linklater is art not life – a storyteller rather than an observer. What is most visible in Boyhood is the European influences Linklater draws on – and how he develops them in a parallel narrative structure.   Mason Junior reminds us of Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s (self)exploration in Les quatres cents coups, not in control of his own fate and acted upon by the adults in his life. Linklater, though, likes to construct a narrative out of the different threads and see how they throw up comparisons and contrasts as it unfolds. He signals this connectivity – and this construction – through metaphors running through, visually, in the frame. Patricia Arquette’s single mother raises the two children working hard, limited by her circumstances whilst Ethan Hawke as the father works and travels away on a whaling ship. The nearest she comes is the whale on the side of the removal van and the artwork on her children’s walls. Strong symbolism to emphasise the difference in circumstances. One of the greatest strengths of Linklater’s episodic design is how the threads of both adult and children’s lives intertwine and we shift perspective constantly to walk a mile in each of their shoes. It’s filmmaking of great control and detail which appears to unfold as naturally as documentary observation.

As part of a showing at Bradford with its hard-core of dedicated cinéphiles, a member made an interesting observation about those directors who have place associated with them and mentioned another native of Austin, Texas: Terrence Malick. It’s an interesting comparison – how each of these filmmakers use their understanding of space (and their place) in a different way. There are the parallels between something like Boyhood and Malick’s Tree of Life, both epic in their treatment because they explore the idea of growing up and maturity (and what those things mean). Tree of Life tested audience’s staying power because Malick introduces his modes of reflection by moving out of the diegetic, narrative space.  Linklater, as evident throughout the Before trilogy, is ‘the auteur’ of staying in the moment with his characters. This might be one reason that many of the reviews focus so heavily on the documentary models, ignoring how highly-wrought his work is. It’s curious to see the parallels with Seven Up, the Michael Apted-directed British series that has followed a number of children through their lives. Their stories have a resonance for all of us. Linklater’s purpose, though, is much more like Malick’s than Apted’s. He wants to explore what boyhood means, how the kind of childhood we have affects the kind of adults we might become. And, as sprawling nineteenth century novels did, weave in philosophical and intellectual reflection around our emotional engagement with the characters. The casting becomes a narrative device and productive in itself. We watch in parallel as Ellar Coltrane (and Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater) grow up through the production of the film – whilst we are strongly rooted in the present tense in each episode. Just as we watched Hawke and Julie Delpy talk, argue discuss and fall in love in the long takes of the Before trilogy but grow up/grow older across the trilogy. Linklater is fascinated with all these aspects – reviews that seem to centre him as an auteur of ‘boyhood’ seem reductive. Perhaps his own boyish face is to blame for this review ‘chatter.’ (As an aside, how fortunate that he chose the kinds of actors who can/are prepared to age on screen. The close-up on the smooth, modern star’s face is eliminating that very thing that makes Linklater’s films so fascinating – being able to empathise with the characters and see ourselves reflected in their faces).

Boyhood, therefore, was the ‘indie epic’ – to use Linklater’s own description. As another of our Bradford group commented, he is in control of structuring emotion – of creating scenes of our lives which convey emotion acutely.  His work creates a real sense of connection and connectivity. He’s the guy who made School of Rock after all. Boyishness aside – Linklater’s body of work is a masterclass in narrative filmmaking.

Sight and Sound July 2014 – carries an interesting inteview with Linklater as part of their feature:

Posted in American Independents, Directors | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Behind the Candelabra (US 2013)

Posted by Rona on 30 July 2013

The ‘real’ Liberace at home

At 30,000 feet Steven Soderbergh had a revelation from a neighbouring passenger’s i-pad. Its owner was watching just the non-narrative action, dialogue-free sequences from various movies which Soderbergh judged to be like watching a form of ‘mayhem porn.’ “Something is going on” in our culture and ourselves if this is what we want to watch now. So begins his eloquent dissection of and diatribe on the state of cinema and movies (between which he makes a clear distinction) and which explains his decision to move away from mainstream, feature film-making. Well worth viewing anyway (reference below), he includes a discussion of some of the issues of financing Behind the Candelabra a subsequently made-for-TV biopic about the pianist and showman, Liberace. Being a subject-matter “too special” (in Soderbergh’s words) for mainstream feature production studios, it was HBO who financed the project. More evidence, then, if any were needed of the increasing ascendancy of television over films as the medium of independently-minded creativity.

The made-for-TV biopic used, at one time, to signal a kind of Sunday-afternoon movie to lounge in front of – and a distinctly inferior product to studio-produced versions. Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra explodes that idea, at the same time as it follows the trend of recent years where very-established film directors have moved across (not down) to work in cable television. The name HBO has become a shorthand for this kind of ambitious style because it has been able to attract, for example, Todd Haynes to make his Mildred Pierce or Martin Scorsese to begin Boardwalk Empire (directing the pilot episode).

A Song to Remember (1945)

A Song to Remember (1945)

Television, of course, is referred to as the starmaker and it’s where Liberace became a huge hit from 1950s (first in America and then syndicated to countries including the UK). An instinctive showman, beginning with the addition of the candelabra to the piano (apparently inspired by A Song to Remember, Charles Vidor’s biopic of Chopin starring Cornel Wilde and Merle Oberon). Old Europe hangs over Vidor, Wilde (Hungary) and Liberace (Poland) whilst Wilde and Liberace became quintessential American stars. Those of us old enough remember the excessive glamour of his later TV appearances remember how – in 1970s Britain –  they were the kind of dazzling entertainment that suggested everything of American glitz, the kind that Hollywood as well as Las Vegas excelled in.

A great irony, then, that apparently Soderbergh failed to find financing for the project in Tinsel Town because of the subject matter for that conservative institution, being the relationship between Liberace and his young lover, Scott Thorson. The film uses the book written by Thorson, Liberace’s lover during the late seventies and early eighties, about his affair and their time together. An interesting article here:

Importantly, Soderbergh – with his two stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – has decided to play this straight. The kitsch, the excess are all there in the lavish sets and costumes that were Liberace’s everyday world, but the film represents an important statement because of way it treats the love story as the story of any relationship in those circumstances. Some of the most affecting scenes are those which show how relationships can go – the intimacy which gives way to disappointment, petty jealousies and hopeless demands, with moments of reconciliation. The backdrop may be marble, gold and crystal inauthenticity but Damon and Douglas remain in this story, rather than playing it ‘to the side’ with the kind of knowing irony or camp humour and the success is that these are character performances rather than star turns. (Although Liberace’s mother exuded star value despite the wig, make-up and glasses – revealed as Debbie Reynolds in the guise of an ordinary person). It’s generous re the story’s point of view, embracing Thorson’s book without criticism (as a typical TV biopic would do). I wrote this prior to reading the Sight and Sound review, and was interested to see that Douglas and Damon intended it as a love story, but the S&S reviewer had counted them to have failed in this. I don’t agree – the play on the real and the unreal is more multi-layered in this film.   Richard La Gravenese’s script and the leads’ performances make comprehensible such things as Liberace’s request for Thorson to undergo plastic surgery to look like him (Rob Lowe embracing the comedy-villain, plastic surgeon enthusiastically). That’s no mean feat. I would say it deserves a nod to A Star is Born (1954) (and Vidor’s 1945 film) rather than Mommie Dearest or Pasolini’s Salò – as S&S suggests, a deliberately odd review flourish in the latter case. This is, in fact, a film that rather than milking the Hollywood Babylon effect, shoots it as if it became your everyday condo (which is what it did for Thorson).  And there is no monster at the centre of this labyrinth.

A real relationship - Behind the Candelabra (2013)

A real relationship – Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Douglas’s performance plays a huge part in this, It won’t be rewarded, however, perhaps mercifully (given the suggestion that ‘playing gay’ somehow always deserves plaudits), since it fails to qualify for Oscar honours as a television movie not distributed in the cinemas in the U.S. It is a great performance nevertheless. Soderbergh serves the drama throughout with his filmic style – because he always understands the kind of film he is making (hence the contrast between Out of Sight with The Limey with Bubble with Haywire etc. etc). LaGravenese imagines a linear narrative structure, but which has many elements of repetition and circularity – ideal to emphasise the melodrama at its core. Stylistically, there are some deft and subtle choices in the cinematography (as frequently on other films, Soderbergh as Peter Andrews). Near the beginning, Scott enters the Casino, Las Vegas during a performance. Being shown to the table, we track him and his companion in the foreground while deep in the background of the frame moves this blurry, glittering object. Something beautiful, indistinguishable and out of reach. The ending of the film shows the film returning to the promise of this fantasy – which, after all, is what Liberace spent his life creating.

HBO has long been involved in financing work in the independent sector in America. Television as a medium certainly seems to have come of age as a player in the film industry and will hopefully provide the disillusioned Soderbergh with somewhere to do his creative work. A great relief for those of us who went into anaphylactic shock at the news he was retiring. A new series called The Knick is in the pipeline for cable and satellite (Time-Warner-owned) Cinemax.

His cri de coeur at the San Francisco International Film Festival: returns to a number of themes that Soderbergh has discussed and attempted to live his professional life by – the use and nature of art, how talent can be nurtured, what’s wrong with the studio system (and includes the remarks on financing this film).    Much is reminiscent of William Goldman’s famous ‘nobody knows anything’ mantra re the business. What Soderbergh knows is that business shouldn’t be so completely in charge. It’s half-an-hour of articulate explanation of why ‘cinema’ (work executed as a singular vision) is under threat, and the business structures that are killing innovation and art.  Some of the foreboding in relation to independent film was also a feature of producer Mark Gill’s warning blast in 2008  to the LA film festival re independent production: (which might therefore be of interest).

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Wolke Neun (2008): German Screen Studies Network #2

Posted by Rona on 25 July 2013

Love in the Third Age: Wolke Neun (2008)

Love in the Third Age: Wolke Neun (2008)

At the inaugural symposium of the German Screen Studies Network at King’s College, London in July, a number of films were screened (including some at London’s Goethe Institut) to complement the conference’s theme of ‘The Return of the Real.’  (for further information, see:

Andreas Dresen’s 2008 feature film (translated as Cloud Nine) presents us with the kinds of relationships rarely seen on the screen.  We might think that there are taboos still to be broken regarding the representations of sexuality.  There was the breakthrough representations of gay and lesbian themes in 1990s American Independent Cinema (“We’re here, we’re queer – get used to it”, as B. Ruby Rich famously wrote). In 2013, Blue is the Warmest Colour ‘s depiction of explicit, non-heterosexual sex still has the ability to shock audiences and to generate journalistic screed, as well as win the Palme d’Or.  However, in a very naturalistically filmed, understated film, Dresen has captured the unthinkable in a story about falling in love – passionately and sexually – in your sixties and seventies. The film begins with an explicit scene of spontaneous lovemaking between Inge (Ursula Werner) and Karl (Horst Westphal), a client for her tailoring and alteration services. Back at home and feeling guilty, she attempts to put the momentary fling behind her and resume her life with her husband, Werner, (Horst Rehberg) a dependable and loving man, and with her children and grandchildren. I think one useful comparison is with Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation where the emotions, the complex and tangled relationships – and where nobody has to be a hero or villain – emerge through carefully crafted scenes which, on the surface, appear spontaneously filmed.

Dresen’s protagonists look their age. At times, in the experience of falling in love again he artfully uses soft filters to imply the girlish glow that returns to his female protagonist’s features. More artfully, the players are often filmed through the doorways of their cramped flat, keeping us distant from the unfolding melodrama and emotion. I feel this is a useful device, just as in Farhadi’s A Separation to remind us (unconsciously) that we cannot know everything about the intimacy in other people’s relationships. An action against conventional film-making which makes us believe this constantly with its close-ups.

Dresen is well-established as a director of the everyday, telling stories sympathetically and empathically. He has been quoted as saying: There may not be any message at all. You see, you don’t make a film because you have all the answers, but to discover something. This is reflected in his filming style, where there is an relaxed and improvisatory feel to the action.  It has much of the feel of the social realism of someone like Ken Loach and certainly the same move towards difficult or tragic subjects. His latest, Halt auf freier Strecke (2011) (Stopped on Track) won a Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes, for its portrayal of a man dying from brain cancer.

There are moments of intense melodrama that parallel the film with Valeska Grisebach’s Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006), especially in the languorous pace set in scenes and in the focus on everyday minutiae in people’s lives, punctuated by changes (forced or desired) and sometimes tragedy. A key strength here (as in other films by Dresen) is the reliance he places on his actors and their ability to live these roles in a completely convincing way. This is visible from his first feature film (after working in television) Halbe Treppe (2002), set in the border town of Frankfurt (Oder) right through to his prize-winning outing in Halt auf freier Strecke. Here’s a link to an English language German film digest, Kino, which features Dresen: Significantly, Abdellatif Kechiche shared the Cannes Festival award with his two lead actors, a testament to the collaboration of artistic contributions on that film. Dresen is another example of the kind of director who uses a skill in letting the performances breathe to bring out the emotion fully in these kinds of intense stories, all too rarely seen. Wolke Neun is certainly worth seeking out on DVD, if only to remind yourself that there’s a long list of real emotional taboos to be dealt with sensitively in the cinema. If only this was the beginning of an (albeit) mini-revolution:  ‘We’re older, we’re bolder – get used to it.’

Here’s an English language trailer (which doesn’t do it justice unfortunately)

Posted in Directors, Festivals and Conferences, German Cinema | Leave a Comment »

Unter dir die Stadt (2010): German Screen Studies Network #1

Posted by Rona on 24 July 2013


Twenty-first Century Man in ‘Unter dir die Stadt’ (from:

At the inaugural symposium of the German Screen Studies Network at King’s College, London in July, a number of films were screened at London’s Goethe Institut to complement the conference’s theme of ‘The Return of the Real.’ See details on the network here.

Unter dir die Stadt (literally ‘below you the city’)  is a 2010 film directed by Christoph Hochhäusler and is an example of the ‘New’ New German Cinema of recent years, which also includes film-makers such as Christian Petzold. Similar to Petzold’s Yella (2007), this film examines the construction of relationships in Germany post-Wende. How does the human function in the world of glass and steel that is the modern capitalist nation and in an economy that creates human migrants across borders in modern Europe? Hochhäusler examines the relationships of the people in power in the business world and explores the spaces which sit hight above the street (where the little people move around). Under these business men lies the city – sitting in rooms with uninterrupted views of the cities, with expensive artwork on the walls. What happens when human emotions intrude on the machine-like efficiency of money-making?

These films are fascinating because they represent a reinvigorated film movement in Germany which does not always  get the play outside of the country that it should (where the recycling of the historical dramas examining Germany’s troubled past are much more likely to receive distribution and global film awards – see Das Leben der Anderen (2006) for example.  Das Leben was an Oscar-winning success and is a very emotionally satisfying film, through its melodramatic structure. Meanwhile, a number of film-makers have been exploring a new kind of language to represent social worlds and problems now. Like aspects of Godard, these films are not the most accessible in the slow pace of plot development or in the way in which they marry visuals and soundscape. Like aspects of Godard, this is a minimalistic kind of film practice which looks to go back to zero to reinvent how to tell the story. These film-makers (many of them trained at the Berlin Film School) are interested in film critique and their film knowledge has led them to be seen as the inheritors of the French New Wave’s mantle in lots of ways – being referred to as la nouvelle vague Allemande.  See this article by Marco Abel, who has written extensively on these film-makers, here:

Visually, the film is arresting.  Hochhäusler (and his cinematographer Bernhard Keller) construct a number of frames where the world is reflected in windows and the clarity of what we are looking at is obscured. In the opening sequence, we appear to be moving through a bank of leafy trees, until we discover it is simply their reflection in the windows of a department store and suddenly we are staring directly at the plastic mannequin (the copy of a woman). We begin to follow Svenja, an ambiguous heroine who finds herself following a woman wearing the same shirt as herself. The film enjoys playing throughout with ideas of copying and originals – back-stories are apparently invented by characters to hide their true origins (a metaphor for the work of economic migrancy) and the successful, middle-aged banker, Roland, works in offices in Germany (it was shot in Frankfurt and Cologne) and London which have exactly the same design including the same art on the walls. It’s a corporate world which is shown to sponsor art and music, but which is hopelessly out of touch with reality.  As Roland and Svenja embark on a more human kind of relationship (this much is in the trailer), the film explores what happens when the real intrudes from the streets.

The film is heavy in its use of symbolism, but like Yella it is part of a series of films in recent German cinema which directly engages with effects of globalised capitalism on Germany and the Germans and tries to find a visual language for conjuring up what it is like to live in these times.  Both films are very potent in their minimalism and avoidance of melodrama – dialogue is spare and characters’ motivations are not always fully explained.  Here’s a trailer (unfortunately no English version available, but shows the visuals):

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, German Cinema | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Ginger & Rosa (UK 2012)

Posted by Rona on 22 October 2012


Making one little world an everywhere – Elle Fanning as Ginger

Sally Potter’s new film, Ginger & Rosa is drawing a very different response from critics who have found her artistic style previously inaccessible. It has drawn comparisons with Orlando, her towering adaptation (for an incredibly tight budget, even in 1992, of $4 million) or The Tango Lesson (1997), made with Potter at the central figure as a woman learning about her emotions as well as her dancing skill on an odyssey (‘away’ from the demands of writing and creating) to Paris and Buenos Aires. The sense of escape – the emotional joy of it in that film – could make us forget we are watching something written and created by Potter. Both films demonstrate Potter’s flair with crafting images of lyrical, romantic intensity – so arresting it could be easy to forget the emotional underpinning that music often provides in these and her other films. Even in ones that seem removed from her more mainstream narratives, there is a rhythm in repetition of action or, for example, in the deep musical voice of Celeste Laffont, who muses philosophically on female/feminist and capitalist states in both Thriller (1979) and The Gold Diggers (1983). A contemporary, and friend, of Derek Jarman and working through the politically-activist 1970s through the resistant 1980s, Potter has often been regarded as part of the British art cinema scene rather than a mainstream filmmaker.

Much has been made, therefore, of the mainstream sensibility of this film and foregrounding it as a departure for Potter. This oddly forgets The Man Who Cried which starred Christina Ricci in another coming-of-age drama, similarly focused on an isolated character – a refugee of a Russian pogrom on a quest to find her father (in America). Whilst this latter film followed a conventional picaresque narrative for its main character, including her romance with an uneducated but poetic Romany (played by Johnny Depp), Ginger & Rosa follows its main character through a particular crisis. It could be described as a family melodrama focused on Ginger’s emotional response to a changing relationship with her parents, resulting from their separation. However, set at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Potter (as writer) brings together the tension of the personal and the political – not only in Ginger’s own political awakening and turning away from home to realise the importance of world events but in the way in which politics is embedded and entwined in her emotional relationship with her father.  I am going to put the context to one side – wrongly I know, because the film animates that period of history and does so most effectively through the persistent sound of the news reports that permeate every private space. When I saw it, another cinemagoer spontaneously talked to me about how it had brought back that whole era really vividly for him. So, I’m turning my face away from the politics, to look at its personal, melodramatic form. Partly because I think Potter explores effectively how the political – truly believed in – can also be as much about personal loyalties and deep-rooted family feeling and this becomes an absorbing tension at the heart of this narrative – not least, importantly, because the playing of it by Elle Fanning and Alessandro Nivola is so incredibly moving. Not often can films let complicatedly good and bad figures remain just that – but Nivola and Potter succeed here. Fanning is drawing Oscar buzz for her performance, and the rawness of her emotions on screen (pretty much carrying a film at 13 years old) are incredible.  Alice Englert, as the apparently more experienced worldly-wise childhood friend, is as finely judged  in what has to be a less showy performance (to prevent the film becoming imbalanced in any way). Shot by Robbie Ryan, Andrea Arnold’s regular collaborator/cinematographer, the colour palette often adds the kind of melodramatic intensity and to express the interiority – I liked to think sometimes (as above) the walls were allowed to turn russet to reflect Ginger’s emotions as well as reflecting an idea of the world she was trying to save. Music, similarly, was actively used in the scenes (rather than remaining a directorial mood-inducing soundtrack) as arising from the characters’ need for expression or comfort  –where their human conversations avoided the confrontations that would force them to let go of the beliefs they needed to hang onto (political or personal).

Potter is used to directing stars (Cate Blanchett and John Turturro joined Ricci and Depp in The Man Who Cried and her innovative Rage – released via mobile phone webisodes in 2009 – included actors such as Judi Dench, Steve Buscemi and Jude Law).  She has a number in supporting roles here – Mad Men’s Christine Hendricks, Annette Bening, Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt. Certain scenes do struggle with the weight of ‘adult’ cross-currents and declarations, but the cast do support (rather than overwhelm) what is a really affecting – and to me as an adult female – true portrait of the kinds of intense friendships born in childhood that can hit the rapids towards adulthood. Its evocation of those unbalanced and intense female friendships was incredibly moving – and was a proper inheritor to earlier women’s pictures in which portraits of women’s relationships were not sketchily or patronisingly conceived. Potter’s films may sometimes issue strong intellectual challenges but in her films there is always a strong romantic consciousness and emotionality (such as in the iambic pentameter-driven Yes (2004)) that does not patronise or render complicated emotions tritely.  Satisfying cinema on many levels – no labels really required.

Posted in British Cinema, Films by women, Melodrama | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Split International Film Festival (15-22 September 2012)

Posted by Rona on 26 September 2012

Resistance inside Diocletian’s Palace: Split International Film Festival 2012

Split International Film Festival , which is in its 17th year, is a fascinating antidote to some of the larger film festival we may be familiar with and defines an area of film culture that can truly argue itself to be alternative. This festival, under the directorship of Branko Karabatić (himself an independent film-maker) seeks to maintain a rigorous adherence to its starting idea – to find films that are truly experimental and challenging in nature, to find film-makers who stay working outside of a system. Film festivals (in the same way as studios or film-makers) can perform a vital ‘service’ in maintaining spaces for a different kind of film culture to thrive, increasingly when the terms ‘experimental’ or ‘independent’ where used in reviews or criticism can have a mainstream feel to them. With Looper opening Toronto, packed with indie cool and arriving to reviews promising intelligent S-F but already with its distribution deal in place, we’re reminded yet again of the tightrope organisations running festivals have to walk between film culture and film commerce.

To stay outside of that category, and to maintain a base for genuinely new and challenging voices generates you neither large funds nor huge audiences. But my small experience of the programme last week in Split revealed that films – sometimes underfunded or small or star-less, or the vision of one person – can deliver real pleasure and surprise and these not necessarily with a lack of finish or sophistication. It is, as it is curated this year, a substantial programme with some beautifully-crafted narratives that are engaging films (easily better than some I’ve seen at much ‘bigger’ festivals. Just as some of the performances given by actors or got by directors put better-funded work to shame). The reach is international (e.g. Germany, Cambodia, Thailand, Mexico, China – to name a few) and it also included seminars relating to the work of artists (e.g. animator Simone Massi) and a collaboration with the Estonian Film Foundation, with a review of that country’s film culture and of its own winter festival, ‘Black Nights’. Tristan Priimägi (Estonia’s representative) commented on the shared experience of countries emerging out of more submerged political identities amongst their geographical neighbours – a statement which received a very warm response from the audience. A Croatian film festival might be pigeonholed (in more Western audiences’ view) by its recent history. Instead, its emphasis couldn’t be more strongly on being an international point of ‘cultural conversation’ and without an insular feel. It has drawn film-makers such as Bela Tarr (who held a series of masterclasses at the festival last year) and Sally Potter who has exhibited her work here and clearly intends to be an intellectual meeting point (more so than a market-driven festival).

Inside Zlatna Vrata (Golden Gate) Cinema

The opening night film from Colombia, Chocó(which had already appeared at the Berlinale) represented the festival’s intentions nicely, with some beautiful cinematography, naturalistic performances and a structure that maintained a tricky balance between the inner and outer consciousness of its protagonist.

The festival’s theme throughout was ‘resistance’. Of the films I saw (also screened at Cinema Karaman in the old town), I’ll add some brief reviews of Chocó, Roman Polanski A Film Memoir, Despite the Gods and The Catch – which, even in a small range, threw up very different ideas of resistance. There are films here that talk about the resistance of cultural differences, modern politics, gender oppression and the importance of finding a place to make your stand. They all pay attention to the particular international culture they arise from. In a town thriving commercially from the cruise ships and sun tourists (me included) with a rich Dalmatian culture, these intelligent films provided an intellectual “cool breeze” (to borrow from Carl Sandburg) as a striking and stimulating counterpoint to the “play of sun-fire” on Split’s antiquity outside. You need to allow extra time to travel up Zlatna Vrata’s airy staircases to view its collection of fascinating film posters and who needs a traditional red carpet when Split’s film festival is staged within Diocletian’s Palace! More details, all in both Croatian and English, can be found at

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Shadow Dancer (UK-Ireland 2012)

Posted by Rona on 30 August 2012

Riseborough and Owen negotiate Friend or Foe in Shadow Dancer

A European co-production, Shadow Dancer appears to hark back to the kind of British political thriller of the 1970s or 1980s, both on television and in the cinema, which can maintain and transfer to its audience an air of paranoia and fear for the entire length of its running time.  That its story is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles adds a further strong political resonance, particularly for British and Irish audiences, in its representation of its heroine Colette (Andrea Riseborough) and her relationship with the British government contact, Mac (Clive Owen).  This relationship – where he recruits her to spy for the Brits to avoid a devastating prison sentence which will separate her from her young son – is established very early in the film and this piece has no other spoilers (but some detail) about a thriller that does deliver on the narrative twists.

Adapted from his own novel by Tom Bradby (a British journalist who covered the conflict in Northern Ireland and wrote this first novel out of his experiences) It is set at the point at which the peace process of the early 1990s has begun and there is the beginnings of division in the Republican leadership which is likely to set the terrorist element adrift but the political machinations sit very firmly in the background.  This is a drama focussed on the personal dilemmas and struggles of Colette caught between two strong and uncompromising bullies – the IRA and the British Government.  Her fear centres not just on herself but on the safety of her son and it is the fear not just of a terrorist (the opening sequence shows her to be part of that ‘struggle’) but of ordinary people living out their lives within a situation where opposing political forces use their streets as a battleground.  This is not an ideological thriller, then, (although it does draw – for me – on the likes of Defence of the Realm or the television series Edge of Darkness for aspects of a conspiracy drama).  Instead, it’s a story where the most dramatic twists occur through the actions of its characters – actions which are rarely explained through the dialogue but make complete sense to you in the audience.

This is perhaps partly if you are British or Irish and are old enough to remember the context and the cross-currents of the time – but even if you don’t, it really works because this a film that is so impressive in its use of visual storytelling.  The dialogue is exceptionally spare – there is hardly any for much of the opening 15-20 (ish) minutes – introducing the protagonist and her situation.  It tends to the ‘wordless’ throughout – suggesting relationships and ideas through its narrative structure and through the physical performance of its actors.  There is a thoughtful visual repeat which (wordlessly) reinforces the parallels of the Brits and the IRA’s treatment of Colette;  there are odd gestures which encapsulate the attitude of a particular character (I thought Gillian Anderson as Mac’s boss made subtle use of very limited screen time here in this.  Clive Owen plays effectively against his established suave persona without overstating it physically). Of the family, Riseborough is consummate (something you almost begin to expect from her having seen her previous work on television and film – such as The Devil’s Whore on Channel 4 (which is still available through their on-demand service in the UK) and The Long Walk to Finchley as Margaret Thatcher as well as lead film turns in Brighton Rock and part of the ensemble in Made in Dagenham. The camera in this film is not afraid of close-up – and Riseborough knows how to use it because she can entirely inhabit the territory of that character. Aiden Gillen fleshes out a typical activist, hothead stereotype with limited time and Domhnall Gleeson (a rising star – who has just shot a Richard Curtis film and part of the next big Brit-flick in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina) entirely conveys a youthful, gauche, loving brother who is also an entirely committed terrorist.

Whilst these performances are vital, the film has an understated aesthetic which might hide its incredibly sophisticated – expressionistic use – of production design. The typical browns and sepias of smoke-filled rooms set the historical era of the early 1990s, the drab colours characterise homes that (given the poverty induced by constant, drip-drip conflict) have hardly moved on since the 1970s. (Here, the film made a strong social point without ever drawing it to attention in the script  through the wood-pannelled decor).  Characters are dressed to fit emotional standing and mood.  Framings in close-up have an unsettling (fearful) angle to emphasise effectively the tension of the narrative – nothing has been left to chance to construct a visual look that feels entirely unforced and natural. Visual edits during a funeral scene lay out the distinctions in attitudes in this community – as well as its seething anger at injustice – which informs our understanding of characters later.  Fundamentalism – our popular understanding of it now – haunts aspects of this film. To begin the film on a London tube is resonant of more recent events (certainly for a British audience) and sparks us into questioning  what drives people to commit atrocities – acts which viewed from outside can seem simply cold and contrived and without a human base. Anger is at the heart of this film – what it drives people to do, how it shapes them – with more sympathy and understanding of that emotion than that statement might imply.

Its director, James Marsh, was the Oscar-winning director of Man on Wire the documentary which told the story of Philippe Petit who walked across a tightrope suspended between the World Trade Centre twin towers in 1974. Nothing really joins these two British-produced films by the same director (who has directed both narrative and documentary work before), who also made another historically retrospective documentary in Project Nim, except this extraordinary ability to tell a story that could be about events and really ends up being about the people involved in them. Looking at it simply as a film (and not a politically or culturally charged film) its ability to blend aspects of performance, production design and cinematography reminds me of  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from last year.  That film evoked visually the seedy corridors of power to evoke emotionally the pervading distrust of the Cold War spy era within the British establishment itself. This film has a greater degree of understatement in its visual construction which I hope will not mean it is overlooked during awards – simply because this kind of British film-making deserves recognition.

Posted in British Cinema, Irish Cinema | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Magic Mike (US 2012)

Posted by Rona on 29 July 2012

Old ‘Pro’ teaching Tricks to the New: McConaughey shows how it’s done

Given it was directed by Steven Soderbergh Magic Mike has immediate credentials as part of independent (‘indie’) cinema, but Soderbergh has always been very effective (in a similar way to Gus Van Sant) at positioning himself within and without the Hollywood mainstream. Independence is an elusive quality – is it financing? is it subject matter? – but it can certainly attach itself to directors. Soderbergh’s body of work is often clearer in moving between different institutional ‘pools’ than others – in a strategy that could be called ‘one for them, one for me’ – rather than remaining in that nebulous region previously called ‘Indiewood’ but often referred to as ‘indie’ by researchers and academics – a third way separate from either mainstream or full independence. The financing – lists FilmNation as a backer, an interesting hybrid company run by Glen Basner (ex-Head of Sales Focus Features and Weinstein Company – covering two of the indie markets big winners) and Aaron Ryder. They have an eclectic mix of talent ranging from European imports to genre pieces and the more commercial and are financing at all levels in the chain. They scored a massive hit by acting as a sales agent for The King’s Speech and are distributing the Soderbergh film – placing themselves in the tradition of Focus and the early Weinsteins with the variety of products, both US and European. Definitely independent, then, but open to a wide variety of projects.

It was difficult to know what to expect, then, with Matthew McConaughey in one of the roles (who has distinctly not turned his nose up at the most mainstream of Hollywood pay cheques) and not forgetting the teen appeal of Channing Tatum. Did I mention it’s a film about male strippers? Soderbergh’s work veers between multiplexes and arthouse but this was always going to sit successfully in the former with its stars and subject matter.  Tatum’s first appearance showed the film’s knowledge of this; wittily in a film about male physical performance, the film got the whole nudity issue out of the way immmediately (full non-frontal for those who may be concerned) and generated a sharp intake of female breath from a group somewhere behind me in the cinema. That knowingness about film-making – the self-consciousness – is a particular hallmark of Soderbergh, always inviting you to be in on another level of amusement running alongside the narrative.

Soderbergh challenged Tatum during their work together on Haywire to come up with a story related to a youthful interlude spent as a male stripper. Tatum did – and in the Reid Carolin scripted story it has taken flight as a combination of Soderbergh’s ability to channel the cinema of earlier eras, to edit with a strong sense of parallel narrative and of his ability to create, almost immediately, a strong sense of mood and place – how people feel on any given Sunday (or other day) that’s very recognisable and empathic. This film’s mood reminded me of the New York Times review of Kathryn Bigelow’s sufter-heist movie Point Break as a narrative examining the problems a surfing subculture left too long out in the sun – what had appeared subversive, rebellious has become seedy and impure. Similarly, the perks and freedoms of being a male stripper – seen through the eyes of Adam (Alex Pettyfer), the ingenue, at the beginning of the film – become more stale, more corrupted as the film proceeds. Soderbergh’s cinematography changes to match this alternation in mood, more of the expressionistic style of his Oscar-winning Traffic becomes apparent as the film progresses to represent the sinking into excessive drink and drugs as part of the ‘fun’ that can be had in this profession.

What do male strippers mean to most audiences? The women audiences in Soderbergh’s film (as in real life) find the whole process funny and exciting in equal measure. The film makes a fascinating counterpoint to movies where women appear stripping – I haven’t seen Showgirls (and don’t really intend to) but I have seen The Wrestler where Marisa Tomei delivers as much of a great performance in the ‘tart with a heart’ role as Mickey Rourke does as the reinvented wrestler. Here as elsewhere, women are represented (rightly) as oppressed by this economic necessity – and this film about men interestingly manages to capture this same constriction for the male performers. They may be the centre of attention on stage and desirable – but they are living a lifestyle of quiet desperation and with a desire to be able to break out of the stereotype and move away. A version of The Full Monty where the narrative somehow runs backwards.

McConaghey plays the role of the dubious entrepreneur and manager of the strip club, Dallas, with the most confident swagger and as if revelling in his slightly villainous credentials. Having made his money, this actor appears to be enjoying working in these less mainstream parts – although they all seem to demand this particular cool confidence as part of the characterisation and his return to indie brand value. A long time since Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, where more was demanded of him, but this year’s CV is amassing roles from directors such as Lee Daniels (the literary adaptation The Paperboy), Richard Linklater (the delayed release of Bernie with Jack Black) and William Friedkin in Killer Joe.  His performance is laden with irony and camp (see the photo above) but manages not to drift into caricature and to affect the film’s balance between comedy and its more serious messages. This is a simple morality tale – and quite openly schematic in its allocation of the roles of good and corrupt.

As the man in the centre of the moral and personal dilemma, Channing Tatum is also moving in an unexpected career direction through his second collaboration with Soderbergh (who worked with George Clooney as producing partners for a number of years, as well as regularly with Matt Damon as an actor). Soderbergh does manage the star ensemble effectively – making the dynamics work equally between players of different star ratings (Full Frontal is one of his films which is an underplayed pleasure for that). Soderbergh has come near the subject matter of workers in some level of the sex industry in The Girlfriend Experience – which makes an interesting counterpoint to me because that film had a deliberately unerotic and flat quality (its digital shooting enhanced this I think) in dealing with life of a call girl. This is a movie, though, about how ‘whoring’ themselves affects the men who do it – a film with a strong moral centre, provided schematically by the character of Adam’s sister, Brooke, and her clear disapproval and anxiety and ultimately conventional moral lessons. There was nothing new to Magic Mike – Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo was in the background – but a confident hand could blend the very different tones and filmic styles into a cohesive watch. The sequences in the strip club are quite brilliant – and very funny – even without Tom Jones (You Can Keep Your Hat On) on the soundtrack. Carolin and Tatum’s own company, Ironhorse, has a Magic Mike 2 in development. Never say independent production turns its nose up at a sequel.

Posted in American Independents, Directors, People | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »


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