Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 March 2014
Mahabir (Randeep Hooda) and Veera (Alia Bhatt) on the last leg of their journey.
This is certainly the most intriguing film I have seen so far this year. It’s tempting to suggest that something is definitely happening in mainstream Hindi cinema. For the first half an hour or so of Highway I thought I was watching an independent film. Only when the A.R. Rahman songs start to come thick and fast does it begin to appear conventional. Even then, the performances by the leads Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt are extremely good. Bhatt in particular is beautiful and vital in a tricky role without having any of that false Bollywood glamour. Because I don’t follow Bollywood gossip, her performance was very fresh for me and I could enjoy it without the hype. I did wonder if she was related to Mahesh Bhatt (she is his daughter) and she lives up to her family name. The film appears to have had a reasonable budget (around $4.5 million) and most of that seems to have gone on the wonderful cinematography in some difficult locations. The feel of authenticity in many scenes again suggests an independent aesthetic. There is also a device whereby each half of the film starts with what appears like a home movie/video academy frame sequence which then morphs (for no reason I could determine) into a full ‘Scope framing. I’d be grateful for any reading of what this might mean.
Highway is a road movie and a romance as well as a social drama. Writer-director Imtiaz Ali first explored the narrative idea in an episode of a TV series in 1999. Two strong elements of the story appeared in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). In the first of these, a bride from a wealthy Delhi family escapes from the wedding preparations, this time with the reluctant groom. Their car is parked at a petrol station when a robbery takes place and the bride is taken as a hostage. She proves to be a lively captive and when her captors learn of her background they swiftly move her out of the region. The ensuing road trip moves through Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. The leader of the gang, Mahabir, knows that because of Veera’s status, ransom demands are going to be met by a police (and military) response. What he doesn’t know is how Veera will behave.
The first part of the film is likely to be difficult for mainstream audiences. There are long periods when little happens plot-wise but we begin to slowly understand why Veera behaves as she does. Veera experiences something akin to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ when hostages develop relationships with their captors. But Veera’s responses are also informed by her childhood memories and her unhappiness as a rich urban young woman, seemingly cut off from the world around her.
I’m not sure that the film has been helped by the hype that surrounded its release in India (including, I read, tie-in fashion merchandising!). But if you are happy to watch a film with relatively long passages of beautiful scenery, pretty good music and a young actress giving her all, I’d recommend Highway.
Posted in Hindi Cinema – Bollywood, Indian Cinema, Indian independent, Romance | Tagged: Alia Bhatt, road movie | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 March 2014
It’s March and in the North West that means the ¡Viva! festival at Cornerhouse in Manchester. Starting on Friday 7 March and running through to Sunday 23 March, this is the 20th edition of the premier Hispanic film fest in the UK. Spanish cinema is suffering badly in the current recession with a right-wing government that seems to care not a jot for film culture except to increase taxation on its diminishing revenues. There’s no better time to show your support for the industry. Cornerhouse has as always found some gems from Spain and the output from Central and South America is increasing in both quality and quantity so this a festival not to be missed.
The opening film of this year’s festival is Días de vinilo (Days of Vinyl, Argentina/Columbia 2012), ”a contemporary comedic tale of friendship and love with a fabulous sixties soundtrack”. Director Gabriel Nesci will be presenting the film at the opening gala screening and taking part in a Q&A on Sunday 9 March. He will be the first of several festival guests and ¡Viva! is famed for its guests and special events. One of these will be a 1 hour intro to Mexican exploitation cinema delivered by Andy Willis of Salford University who is aiming to complement the screening of El Fantástico mundo de Juan Orol (Mexico 2012), a spectacular biopic that covers the barely believable career of the legendary maverick film director. For those who love the bizarre, ¡Viva! offers a new film from the frenzied imagination of Álex de la Iglesia in the form of Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi (Witching and Bitching, Spain/France 2013) which promises an appearance by the wonderful Carmen Maura. Like several other ¡Viva! screenings this will be a UK première.
¡Viva! always offers a ‘classic’ and this year it is Carlos Saura’s début film, Los Golfos (The Delinquents, Spain 1960) with a post-screening discussion led by ¡Viva! regular Carmen Herrero from Manchester Metropolitan University. I’m looking forward to seeing this film and two or three more on a Sunday visit. This year there are films from Cuba, Peru and Venezuela as well as those from Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Spain mentioned above. Don’t miss out! You can download a full festival programme from the Cornerhouse website.
Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Latin American Cinema, Spanish Cinema | Tagged: !Viva¡ | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 March 2014
This is just to remind you that some of our new posts are now appearing on The Global Film Book Blog. Recent posts include Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008), Boomerang Family (South Korea 2013) and Jack Strong (Poland 2014).
Posted in Korean Cinema, Polish Cinema, Taiwan Film | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 27 February 2014
Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as the lovers
I’m intrigued by the production credits for this film. I was going to classify it as an American Independent, but the credits make clear that it is mainly a German production (like some of Jarmusch’s earlier films) with a UK partner and some financing from a Greek company (which IMDB reads as ‘Cyprus’).
Jim Jarmusch is a distinctive filmmaker and I enjoyed his first two films in the 1980s. I remember the later films less well. I know I saw Broken Flowers (2005) but I’m much less sure that I saw Dead Man (1995). I mention this because Only Lovers has such a languid feel that I could have dreamt that I saw it. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
I was expecting a vampire film and there are many of the tropes of that genre in place but this is mainly a film about romance and ennui – an unlikely pairing but probably quite common for anyone who is a few centuries old. What plot there is sees ‘Eve’ (Tilda Swinton) leaving her house in the old city in Tangier to travel to the wastelands of crumbling Detroit – a city gradually reverting to its natural state – to see her husband ‘Adam’ (Tom Hiddleston). She leaves behind her equally aged friend ‘Kit’ (John Hurt). Apart from a sudden interruption by Eve’s sister Eva (Mia Wasikowska) not a lot happens. Certainly there is little in the way of ‘horror’. Instead this a film that offers gentle pleasures of erudition. I think the script, by Jarmusch himself, is clever and witty. There are little jokes about real historical figures and characters from literature as well as meditations on fame, the artistic temperament and the difficult problem of finding things to do when you have had so long ‘alive’ and have learned so much. In some ways the best things about the film, apart from the dialogue are the production design and the music.
I had a pleasant afternoon’s entertainment and now I want to visit Tangier. One shot in particular will stay in my memory. It has the lovers in long shot framed through an alleyway or possibly an arch and lit only by moonlight and the dim yellow streetlights. They are sat on a low wall and behind them is a pair exquisitely decorated panels that represent the best of Islamic art. Of course this is old Tangier and it has been ‘dressed’ for the part. Sadly the Ciné Alcazar which the couple passes is actually closed. Still Tangier is a powerful presence – I’m guessing that the location is partly an hommage to Bertolocci’s film The Sheltering Sky (1990) based on a Paul Bowles story (with Debra Winger as ‘Kit’) since Jeremy Thomas’ Recorded Picture Company was involved in both films. One mystery is why Adam and Eve refuse to fly via London – are there too many painful memories?
Posted in American Independents | Tagged: German-UK co-production, Jim Jarmusch, Vampire movies | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 17 February 2014
Mike Verdrengh as Raymond Jonkhere, the owner of the private bank that is robbed – and the ‘face’ of ‘Salamander’?
For some reason that is beyond me, the British seem to be quite willing to mock Belgium. “Name 10 famous Belgians” is a tired old joke. I’m not sure how much of this prejudice is behind the generally negative reception of the Belgian drama series Salamander now airing on Saturday nights in BBC4′s ‘euro drama’ slot. I’ve watched the first four of 12 x 45 mins episodes and I’m not going to rush to judgment at this stage. I’m certainly going to ‘read’ the serial seriously over its full length but it is worth making a few initial observations.
‘Salamander’ is revealed to be some form of secret cabal operating within the Belgian establishment. In the opening episode a well-executed robbery at a private bank leads to potential exposure for the members of Salamander when their safety deposit boxes are opened and papers taken. A Brussels detective is tipped off that a bank robbery has occurred somewhere in the city. He begins to investigate but it soon becomes clear that the authorities want to hush up the crime and the detective finds himself isolated as a ‘wanted man’ when his informer is killed.
The main charge against the serial is that it isn’t The Killing or The Bridge. This is silly for several reasons. First it’s a different genre. I’m not quite sure yet which genres are important but the best bet seems to be the conspiracy/paranoia thriller with elements of political drama like House of Cards. Second this is 12 x 45 mins rather than 10 x 60 mins. I think that this is probably because Salamander was made by a Belgian independent (best known for animation as far as I can make out) for a commercial TV channel. 45 mins is a standard length for advertising-led television. The Danish version of this was Those Who Kill and in fact Salamander does follow similar thriller narrative lines.
The more serious charge against Salamander that I’ve noted is that the women in the serial seem too quiescent (and that the central character Inspector Gerardi is too ‘old school’, macho etc.). Again it’s a bit early to make this charge and anyway in Episode 3 we are introduced to a woman who looks like she will be ‘active’ and the Inspector’s own daughter looks like she too may become involved. I have to say that Filip Peeters seems well cast. The one thing that does intrigue me is that this a Flemish language serial, despite being set in Brussels (which I’ve always taken to be Francophone). Given the current state of Belgian politics re the language/culture division I wonder how this will be handled in terms of the conspiracy?
At this point I can’t quite imagine how the remaining eight episodes will work out – and that must be a good thing. I’ll be watching over the next four weekends.
Posted in Belgian Cinema, Global television | Tagged: conspiracy, Flemish language, paranoia thriller, political thriller | 5 Comments »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 February 2014
Theodore waits for his new OS to load – and become ‘Samantha’.
A few years ago Her might have been called a ‘smart film’ – made for and appreciated by a specific niche audience (of well-educated, arthouse patrons). In 2013-4 it has taken $23 million at the box office in North America and I’ll be intrigued to see how it does in the UK. It already has an IMDB score of 8.4 and 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. I found it an ‘interesting film’, well worth seeing but not completely satisfying. It’s been described as a romcom which I don’t think is helpful. I would say that it is a hard science fiction film utilising comedy. I realise that this won’t be a common reaction, but I can argue a case.
I find it very difficult not to see most SF films coming out of the US as anything other than Dickian narratives – i.e. inspired in some way by the ideas of Phil K. Dick. Possibly I haven’t read enough or I became obsessed by Dick at a particular moment in my cultural education and I can’t throw him off. Still, I can imagine this as one of Phil’s short stories. Set in the ‘near future’, Her focuses on Theodore (itself a Dickian name, referring to ‘God’s gift’). He’s in early middle age, recently separated from his wife and working as a writer of emotionally-charged letters for customers who are themselves less than emotionally literate. His social life is as he indicates a non-choice between internet porn and videogames. One day he buys a new Operating System, ‘OS1′, for his phone/computer and promptly falls into a relationship with the artificial intelligence who voices the software and calls ‘herself’ Samantha. I don’t want to give away any more than that (though in contemporary cinema, blogs and promo material tend to tell you everything).
The film looks beautiful. It is shot in LA and Shanghai which provides cityscapes and, I suspect, the High Speed train that takes Theo on holiday. The photography is by the Hoyte van Hoytema who has worked in Sweden, UK and North America and the costume design with its distinctive (but hideous) high-waisted pants for men combine to create a world of warmed-up pastels and bland environments. The music, mostly by the Canadian band Arcade Fire, surprised me by sounding a little twee for my taste but it worked in terms of the narrative. Joaquin Phoenix as Theo and Amy Adams as his close friend give good performances and Rooney Mara copes well with the difficult role of Theo’s wife. The problem is that as a film the narrative poses problems for writer-director Spike Jonze. Many scenes consist of shots of Joaquin Phoenix talking to Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) via his smartphone’s integrated microphone. I confess that people who talk on their mobiles in public via earphone/mike combinations drive me almost to murder so I was aggravated by these long sequences. OK, perhaps that is an extreme reaction, but these sequences are not cinematic. The Amy Adams character is trying to construct a documentary film about sleeping. This – and the reactions to it from Theo and Amy’s husband – make for an interesting commentary on the overall narrative of the film.
There is a great deal of talk about relationships – and about sex. There is little sexual activity on screen though I did find one scene strangely arousing. I’m not sure that there is much ‘romance’ and for me not much emotion. More important, I think is the satire on social relations in this future world. And what a sanitised world it is – seemingly ‘cleansed’ of old people, poor people, black people, disabled people etc. I was reminded at various points of Charlie Kaufman’s script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don’t think Her is as good.
I am intrigued by the discovery that Samantha Morton is the Executive Producer on the film and that she was initially the voice of the OS. It seems that her voice was replaced for production reasons. I’m a huge Samantha Morton fan and I do wonder what her voice would have contributed. Johansson does a good job, but it would have been a different element in the mix as voiced by Morton.
Her did make me laugh at various times, not because of the romance but more because of the recognition of human frailties in the face of artificial intelligence. I think the film could lose 30 minutes and it might have benefited from more, not less, ‘plot’. I don’t regret 126 mins in the cinema and I enjoyed the overall experience, but as with American Hustle, if this is one of the Oscar choices, American cinema is in trouble. The film is in some ways ‘global’ but its sensibility seems to be the wan emotionless world of Southern California.
Posted in American Independents, Comedies | Tagged: Romance, science fiction | 7 Comments »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 12 February 2014
For the past couple of years I’ve been trying to distil some of the best ideas and analysis on The Case for Global Film into a form that I hope will be accessible and useful for students and teachers. The project has now reached fruition in the form of The Global Film Book published in January by Routledge in the UK and US. I’m very grateful to Routledge for their support in publishing a full colour textbook with a range of illustrations and I think it looks very good.
I have also committed to writing a support blog for the book and that too is now live at globalfilmstudies.com At the moment, nearly all the posts on the new blog are taken from the archives of The Case for Global Film, but they are organised in relation to the structure of the book and, over time, new material will appear as exclusive to the new blog (but I will also continue to contribute to this one).
The new book offers an argument about the global production of films (and includes a chapter on ‘global television’) and analyses the ways in which the international trade in film exports operates. It can’t cover every film-producing territory so I have selected certain film industries and film cultures in order to explore specific aspects of my general argument. After a brief outline of the development of the international trade in films since the early 20th century, the book offers an analysis of the influence of the ‘Hollywood model’ and then considers ideas about European ‘national cinemas’ in the UK, France, Spain and the Nordic countries.
I’ve included a chapter on the festival circuit, new waves and auteur cinema (with a case study on Claire Denis). Cuba and Sub-Saharan Africa feature in discussion of what was once known as Third Cinema, ‘Middle East Without Borders’ surveys a region whose cinematic identity often seems to be defined by those outside the region and which is sometimes characterised by the influence of diasporic and ‘exilic’ filmmaking. Japan and South Korea are the focus for a debate about the challenge to the idea of Hollywood as the ‘only’ classical cinema and Indian and Chinese cinemas get separate chapters in recognition of their importance for the future.
One chapter looks at four case studies of filmmaking from around the world and attempts to help students become engaged. I’m going to draw on this material in a free event to be hosted by the National Media Museum in Bradford on Saturday 15 March which will launch the book officially. Film and media teachers and students of all ages (including evening class students) are welcome to attend. Please check out the details here. After this event I will also be giving an illustrated talk to introduce the screening of the new Claire Denis film Bastards (France-Germany 2013).
If you can’t make the launch, the book is available from all good bookshops and the usual online stores – it’s also available as a Kindle book and an e-book from Taylor & Francis (Routledge’s parent company). You can get full details and ‘look inside’ on the Routledge website.
The Global Film Book follows on from The Media Student’s Book in not being tied to a specific syllabus or course. I hope it provides useful background and an introduction to study of films from around the world for any student from A Level to undergraduate and evening class – indeed anyone interested in global film.
Posted in Film education, Film industry, Global television | Tagged: The Global Film Book | 2 Comments »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 10 February 2014
Llewyn (Oscar Isaacs) trudges through the snow in a framing reminiscent of the cover of Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album (referenced several times in shots of Greenwich Village – but this is Chicago). photo by Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC
You have to hand it to the Coens. They are intelligent and highly-skilled filmmakers who know how to engage diverse audience groups. They also like to ‘play’ in a serious way, creating controversies and teasing their fans. The most interesting comment I’ve read about Inside Llewyn Davis is that the title could fit on an album cover and that the individual episodes might represent a collection of introspective songs about the artist’s unhappy lot. That seems a good call to me.
Llewyn is an angry man who isn’t making much money from applying his talent in as authentic a manner as possible. He has no home and moves from the floor or couch at friends to the occasional bed. His sister is about to sell his parents’ house. He is primed to insult anyone who offers the hand of friendship – but he is topped in the angry stakes by Jean, one of his former lovers. This is a Coens’ movie though and thankfully he isn’t ‘redeemed’. Many of those who don’t like the film suggest that it has no story or rather no ‘meaning’. I take the story to be about the folk singer who fails to find success because of a combination of bad luck (fate?), the unfortunate ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – just missing being in the right place at the right time – and the inability to compromise just enough to gain acceptance without squandering his talent. For me, the turning point of the narrative is Llewyn’s ‘audition’ for Albert Grossman (or his fictionalised counterpart). This is his big chance to impress the main promoter on the folk scene and he sings a song that many commentators have seen as ‘miserabilist’, a ‘real downer’ etc. In fact it is a beautiful rendition of an old English ballad (arranged in the version that Oscar Isaacs sings by the Irish guitarist Dáithí Sproule). It is contrasted with the smoother, more ‘poppy’ and conventional songs sung by the ‘Jim and Jean’ characters (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) and some other performers.
The Grossman who turned down Llewyn Davis would go on to promote Bob Dylan (who appears as a character towards the end of the film) – and the much more polished Peter, Paul and Mary – but who in 1961 doesn’t see what might become a commercial possibility.
I think the film is well written, beautifully photographed and, as might be expected from the Coens, the soundtrack is wonderfully arranged/scored/constructed by T-Bone Burnett. Oscar Isaac’s performance of the songs is very good and worth the price of the admission ticket on its own. But here is where the Coen’s get playful and tease. The ‘community’ of singers associated with the Gaslight Café and Greenwich Village generally in 1961 is based on and ‘around’ the historical figures of Dave Van Ronk and several other well-known names such as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and Tom Paxton. I’m sure I read/heard that the Coens said that they didn’t know that Ewan MacColl only wrote ‘Shoals of Herring’ in 1960 – but the narrative implies that Llewyn had sung the song to his father many years before. Did they really not know? There are other anachronisms as well, including a poster for The Incredible Journey (1963) (part of the entertaining narrative of a Greenwich Village cat). The barely disguised impersonations and sly jokes (Llewyn comments on the sweaters worn by the Clancy Brothers performers) and the anachronisms provide ample material for fans either of the music itself or of the Coens’ films to discuss at length.
Inside Llewyn Davis has prompted me to explore Dave Van Ronk’s music. He’s someone I’ve always vaguely known about but never properly listened to and now perhaps I will. I guess it helps (to get funding) if the characters in a kind of faux biopic like this are relatively young and beautiful. I wonder how important Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan (whose husband Marcus Mumford has a leading role in the music performed in the film) are to the success of the film for younger audiences? It occurs to me that a biopic of a similarly ‘difficult’ but older and less photogenic character like Ewan MacColl would offer personal dramas, songs at least as good and a similar clash of ideas about where the music should be going – but would add some radical politics as well.
The official website for Inside Llewyn Davis carries a useful background piece on the folk scene in New York in 1960-2.
Inside Llewyn Davis is clearly a film with American cultural content and it is an ‘American’ film, but it’s worth noting that it has been made in association with StudioCanal – a link going back to the Coens’ early work with Working Title/Universal/Vivendi? – and the UK company Anton Capital Entertainment which currently supplies 30% of StudioCanal’s funding. So Inside Llewyn Davis is technically a US/France/UK film.
Posted in American Independents, Film music | Tagged: biopic, Coen Brothers, folk music | 4 Comments »