Tagged: Leeds International Film Festival

Roma unseen!

 

As is fairly well publicised this new title is a production involving Netflix and they control the distribution. Their tendency to offer token or zero theatrical access is also well known and has caused controversy at festivals, notably at the major Cannes event. So Netflix have expanded [only slightly] the theatrical access for this film, presumably so the film is a contender for awards at important festivals.

This release had a screening in the Leeds International Film Festival this autumn. Oddly it was not in Leeds but at the Harrogate Everyman. I do not think this venue has featured in any previous Festivals. And, if it is designed in same manner as its partner in Leeds, then I would question the designation of ‘theatrical’. The festival’s web pages did not shed any light on this unusual programming. A friend told me that he was advised that the reason was that Netflix were insisting that screenings were in 4K and with Dolby Atmos sound system. [More on this later]. Apparently the Harrogate multiscreen is the nearest venue with these facilities. I did look up the title’s website, which had a function to check for convenient screenings. After checking seven of the cities or towns listed I found that I could see it in London on Boxing Day. This only started at 8.30 p.m. That would have cost me a return train ticket to London, an overnight hotel and two days away from home, [and my new housemate Dylan]. My colleague Roy Stafford has seen Roma and will be posting a review.

There seem to be several reasons why it is so difficult to see this film theatrically, already voted by the critics as the top title of the year in both Sight & Sound and in ‘The Guardian. One important facet has been set out with commendable clarity by Wendy Cook, General Manager, in the Hyde Park Picture House Members’ Newsletter;

“All the films we play in our cinema have a distributor of some kind. That will range from a large international company like Sony or Twentieth Century Fox to a small team of one or two people focussed on getting their film to the audience. They will understand their audience and the potential scale of that audience combined with the scale of the distribution … like the number of cinemas that the film play in, the marketing, how many screenings etc.

Netflix funded Roma, they are not however a distributor. They are not interested in reaching audiences through cinemas because they have their own platform and they want as many people as possible to engage with that. …

So, this year Netflix have initiated a strategy that gives some of their titles a limited release into Curzon Cinemas and handful of about three venues across Scotland and Wales.

This means is now open to the consideration of the major awards season but it is still not widely available for cinemas like us to book it.”

The cinema is one of a number of independent venues who have written to Netflix questioning the limited availability of this and other titles. [See the report by Screen]. It seems that the ‘window’ for theatrical exhibition is 3 to 6 weeks and exclusive to Curzon Cinemas. Curzon claim they only act as exhibitor and that bookings are through Netflix direct. So vast stretches of Britain and of the exhibition sector miss out. This is not helped by other players in the Industry. Screen International appear to have carried confusing reports on the issue. The Guardian suggested, erroneously, that the title would be available across Britain. The British Film Institute issued a Janus-style statement sympathising with the exhibitors but also praising the ‘availability’ via streaming. If my friend was rightly informed then the insistence by Netflix on certain technical standards for screenings would also be a major limitation.

I have so many objections to this, let me set out the important ones.

The rationale for Netflix’s stance on this has been surmised by some reviewers. Netflix operates a subscription streaming service.

“The company’s primary business is its subscription-based streaming OTT service which offers online streaming of a library of films and television programs, including those produced in-house.” (Wikipedia).

This service can be accessed across a range of products including computers, smart televisions and various mobile phones, Their prime interest is in signing-up more customers. This applies across the board. I went to look at their webpages and you can only access these by ‘signing up’.

The way Netflix organises access leads to restriction of trade, which means that would be customers for their commodities can only purchase via a highly controlled and selective environ. The EEC has already taken Google [and other internet companies] to task for what seem to be parallel restrictions. I am not a fan of the EEC but they would seem more likely to take media companies to task for similar practices than any of the British Parliamentary political parties.

Of course, restrictions of trade in film distribution and exhibition in Britain have been endemic since the Chaplin titles were used in an early form of ‘block booking’. Then as now the main culprits were US companies, as is Netflix, operating here. When the Hollywood studios were taken to task over anti-trust activities the market opened up. But it closed down again when the Reagan administration reversed these rulings. Currently in Britain the major distributors operate a series of restrictions including demanding the main auditorium, minimum bookings and priority over other titles. The latter tend to be independent and foreign language titles. Netflix’ partners in distributing Roma are Curzon who are very experienced in these type of actions.

At an aesthetic level there are questions of what exactly one gets for one’s money.

‘Devices that are compatible with Netflix streaming services include Blu-ray Disc players, tablet computers, mobile phones, smart TVs, digital media players, and video game consoles (including Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii).’

This streaming apparently requires compatibility in 4K and with Dolby Atmos sound. And, of course, 4K on TVs and streams is not the same as 4K via a theatrical digital projector using a DCP;

’90 and 300GB of data (roughly two to six times the information of a Blu-ray disc’

And at present Blu-ray is superior to streaming,

‘it’s worth looking at the specifications for Blu-ray and streaming services. On paper, Blu-ray is certainly the quality winner, with the standard supporting video encoded using H.264 at a resolution of 1,920×1,080, delivered at a bit-rate of up to 40Mbit/s.

Compare that to Netflix, which is representative of other streaming services. It also uses the H.264 codec at a resolution of 1,920×1,080, but streams at around 12Mbit/s maximum. That’s a big difference between the two. To get its streaming rate down, Netflix has to throw away more detail in its video stream compared to the Blu-ray version ‘ [See ‘Quora’,  ‘What Hi-fi’ and ‘Film-Tech‘ ].

Technical comments on sound suggest that there is an equivalent loss in audio reproductions.

The caveat in this quotation applies to all formats. Currently 35mm would seem to be superior to 4K digital but this depends on the source, the print and the projector. And similar facets would apply to Digital projectors, televisions and streaming equipment. But the mean would suggest that there is a vast difference in vision and sound between seeing something at a cinema and watching it on Netflix.

In a bizarre twist Roma, filmed on a digital format at 6.5K and using Dolby Atmos sound, has also been released [mainly in the USA] on 70mm film.

Several commentators have suggested that

‘this is the way things are going.’

My cinematic hearts ‘sinks into my boots’. Viewing life has got harder with the advent of digital. Titles that are shot processed with digital technologies vary considerably. Films originated on 35mm or 70mm or 70mmIMAX rarely have parallel contrast, definition or complete colour palette in digital projection.

Of course the entire film industry is about making profits from commodities, and surplus value. But Netflix is part of the expanded global system. 137 million subscribers round the world. Valued at a billion dollars for every million subscribers, [note, by the stock markets!]. Most notably leverage [debts] of over 20 billion dollars. [See Wikipedia]. At the level that such companies make deals the feelings and desires of actual audience members are inconsequential. Meanwhile the artists [or auteurs as critic love these days] are in hock to cultural capital. Seemingly as driven for the cultural aspect as the capitalist is for the value aspect. We have British film-makers working in the USA and mostly producing work that lacks the complexity and style of their home-grown products. And there are parallel examples from Europe and Asia. I like a lot of Alfonso Cuarón’s films, more so those that come from a culture in which he is [or was] embedded than from one of capitalist media behemoths.

Wendy Cook has seen Roma and thought it,

“a really magnificent and important film”

The Sight & Sound review by Nick Pinkerton praised both the black and white cinematography and the use of the Atmos sound system. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian found it ‘dazzling’ and ‘inspiring’. Common mortals like me will have to take this on trust for the time being.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (Netherlands, Palestine, Germany, Mexico 2018)

This new release was screened in the Leeds International Film Festival and was also the first title in the 2018 Leeds Palestine Film Festival which runs on until December 11th. The film was a fine production to grace the Official Selection programme in the Leeds Festival and a strong opening film story for the Palestinian Festival. The Festival catalogue describes the film as

Both a nail-biting thriller and a heart-breaking love story.

This is a film that combines genres, an ‘infidelity’ film, a thriller and, at times, I felt it had tropes found in spy films. The main story concerns an adulterous affair between an Israeli woman, Sarah (Sivan Kerchner) and a Palestinian man, Saleem (Adeeb Safadi). This is treated as tragedy, rather like the film versions of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’. The thriller element is far from that of Fatal Attraction (1987).

Whilst the film concentrates on the personal relationships, the situation, the occupation of Palestinian lands, structures the whole narrative. But the conflict between two peoples is amplified here by differences of class. Sarah is married to a high-ranking Israeli Officer, David (Ishai Golan) in the Israeli army security service. She is attempting to run her own business, a café, but this attempt has been made intermittent by David’s work leading to moves. She has a young child. Saleem works as a delivery driver for an Israeli bakery and is married to Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi) who is pregnant. Sarah and David live in West Jerusalem, Salem and Bisan live in East Jerusalem.

In addition to his work as a delivery driver Saleem is persuaded by his brother-in-law, [not a sympathetic character] to use the van for an unofficial delivery service in the West Bank after work: This includes Bethlehem beyond the ‘apartheid wall’ constructed by Israel.

There are nuances here resulting from the occupation. Israeli licence plates are clearly distinguishable from those issued by the Palestinian Authority. It appears that Arab citizens of Israel, including Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, have the same type of plates as other Israeli citizens. The van Saleem drives has Israeli plates and at checkpoint he passes with ease whilst queues of cars with Palestinian plates are visible in the background. There are further nuances as the film features both the Israeli police and Israeli Security Service and the Palestinian Police and the Palestinian Security Service.

These all enter the narrative at various points after Saleem takes Sarah with him on a delivery to Bethlehem; their usual assignation take place in a car park. An argument in a café and the obvious presence of an Israeli vehicle in a Palestinian area lead to investigations. The Reports of the title are compiled by the Palestinian Security but later fall into the hands of the Israeli Security. As one investigation follows another the complexities of the situation emerge for the audience. And the feelings and values of both Sarah and Saleem are tested as are those of their partners, David and Bisan. We also see the different responses of both Israelis and Palestinians as the affair becomes known.

The film has been written and directed by two Palestinian brothers, Rami Musa and Muayad Alayan. They also produced the film through their company Key Films, with co-producers from Germany and Mexico. They have previously produced several short films and one other feature, Love, Theft and Other Entanglements (Al-hob wa al-sariqa wa mashakel ukhra 2015). I have not seen this film which does not appear to have had a British release. It does though suggest generic affinities with The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, the plot involves a Palestinian who mistakenly steals an Israeli car.

The Alayan brothers also worked on the cinematography and art design for this earlier films. Here they have assembled a skilled production crew. Sebastian Bock provides the cinematography which does fine work with both interiors and exteriors. He also uses a hand-held camera for certain dramatic sequences, [presumably a steadicam with a loose setting]. The interiors range though daytime and night-time lighting, with chiaroscuro in places. This also applies to the exteriors, which include narrow streets, car parks, the ‘separation wall’ and at judicious intervals long shots of both sectors of Jerusalem, Nazareth, and briefly the empty desert landscape of the South. Whilst these settings focus on the development in the plot they also are reminders of the conflict setting which is so important to the narrative. And the editing by Sameer Qumsiyeh keeps up a narrative pace that maintains both the drama and the developing mystery of the story.

The film works well as a drama and is absorbing and at times generates real tension. There are relatively explicit sex scenes, unusual for a Palestinian film. Added to this is the representation of key aspects of the lives of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. As is regularly noted in the media East Jerusalem is at the conflicted edge of the struggle for Palestinian independence. The Israeli control and harassment of those Palestinian living in East Jerusalem is hedged round with restrictions and constantly threatens their homes and their culture. This emerges with increasing power as the film’s narrative develops.

The film was shot digitally and is in 2.35:1 and colour. The dialogue is in Arabic, Hebrew and English with the first two languages translated in English sub-titles. The Festival screening was the British premiere and to date there is not a British release listed for the film which neither has a BBFC certificate. The DCP for the screening was provided by Heretic Outreach, based in Athens,

Heretic Outreach is a boutique world sales agency that supports and encourages outstanding films and film-makers to reach out to the world, by becoming a key partner for solid strategies in festivals, sales and alternative distribution models.

One would expect this film to feature in other Palestinian film events round Britain, of which there are now a number. Hopefully it also be picked up by a distributor for a more general release.

Happy End (France-Austria-Germany 2017)

I viewed this film at the Leeds International Film Festival and then on its British release in December 2017. I have waited to post on the film as I have been trying to resolve a puzzle. The title failed to achieve an entry in the Sight & Sound ‘Top 40 Films of 2017’. This despite the ludicrous Mother achieving equal 19; several productions that were not actually cinema films; and the beautifully undramatic Call Me By Your Name. I did wonder if the oddity of the S&S list coming out at the beginning of December was the reason? Solving the conundrum proved difficult. The complete lists of voters and votes is actually on the S&S webpages but it was beyond my limited computer skills to crack it. After some delays I managed to get the information from the S&S editorial office. It appears that Michael Haneke’s new film received only one vote, by Geoff Andrews. I shall include him in my top five film critics of the year.

So what was the problem with the film for so many critics. Adam Nayman’s review in S&S noted,

“In what has to be considered a minor upset by Cannes standards, Happy End was the first Michael Haneke joint to leave the festival without a major prize since 2003 …” [this use of ‘joint’ is new to me].

It is a typical Haneke film. Perhaps critics felt a sense of déjà vu as they watch the familiar characters, situations and events. I did think it is not in the same class as Amour (2012) or Caché / Hidden (2005). But it is very funny, more so than the recent Haneke productions; certainly as effectively as the 1997 Funny Games. This is a sardonic and satirical examination of the French bourgeoisie whilst at the same time drawing attention to the exploitation and oppression that their wealth and success entails.

The setting for most of the film is the area around Calais where the central family live and have their business. The plot presents aspects of that but most of the running time is concerned with the interaction within the family. However, at key points in the narrative there are important scenes involving members of the working class, members of the servant class and the unemployed migrants in the area. The latter are presumable waiting to try and cross the channel to join the British audiences of the film.

The central characters are the family and their circle:

To this can be added Nathalie (Aurélia Petit ), Thomas’ ex-wife and mother of Eve; a young woman cellist, also a mistress; a site workers and his family; and four or five migrants/refugees, apparently based in the well publicised ‘jungle’. None of the main characters are presented sympathetically; even the family dog bites a small child. We have the well-heeled self-centred bourgeoisie and the hard-pressed people who depend on them, at least financially. The only sympathetic relationship is that between the young Eve and the elderly Georges. The latter’s situation appears to have confused at least one reviewer. Adam Nayman writes:

“It’s strongly implied, as Happy End goes on, that Trintignant is playing the same Georges Laurent he did in Amour; a bit of continuity that is (intentionally) undermined by the fact that the daughter figure played by Hubert in that film was named Eva, not Anne.”

Actually Amour does not provide the surname of Georges. Though the death of the wives are similar the point is that one is a retired piano teacher, miles away from the bourgeois owner of a substantial construction company.

The film opens with a series of shots taken on a mobile phone, first of a woman washing and toileting, then of the family pet. These are accompanied by text messages which seem inconsequential but require close attention. These shots set up one strand in the film dealing with modern electronic gadgets. Later we see a series of what I take to be texts messages on a laptop. Some of these are extremely funny. Then at the end of the film we return to the mobile phone; this sequence is noted for provoking audible responses in the audiences; I found it exhilarating.

The opening is followed by a long shot/long take , in typical Haneke fashion., of a Laurent construction site. The event here will create repercussion right throughout the film.

Between these very personal and these very public sequences we see the family politely destroying each other. These interactions fall between expensive rituals like parties and meals. And both types are disrupted by the people from ‘across the tracks’ . Thus whilst Haneke’s representation of the family is sardonic the film also presents the critical alternative worlds as was the case in Caché.

The film is scripted and directed by Michael Haneke. As usual it has a beautifully realised style with fine production design and cinematography by Oliver Radot and Christian Berger respectively. And the editing by Monika Willi is unshowy but very effective; and equally so is the sound.

Adam Nayman does recognise the quality of the film,

“Cut to several months later (from the Cannes Festival in May to the December S&S), and it looks as if Happy End is Haneke’s most interesting film since Hidden (2005) . . . “

So, perhaps given that the film received a December release and that S&S continue their odd practice of publishing issues in the month preceding the titular date, we could see this fine film in the 2018 ‘top forty’.

The Square (Sweden-France-Germany-Denmark 2017)

This title opened the 2017 Leeds International Film Festival. It was screened in a fairly packed Victoria auditorium at Leeds Town Hall. This has a large well placed screen for the occasion and the illumination levels are suitably low; though you get extraneous light when people enter or leave during the feature. The acoustics are less favourable, especially for dialogue. This feature offers Swedish, English and Danish with part sub-titles. Presumably because of the English dialogue the soundtrack was fairly loud but one could manage.

The film itself won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I am not totally convinced by the Jury’s choice but I could see why the film received the award. It was written and directed by Ruben Östlund whose Force Majeure was one of the stand-out releases in 2014. The bad news for those who enjoyed the earlier title is that Fox have acquired ‘remake rights’.

The Square is a worthy follow-up and the style and themes of the film are recognisably similar. However, I thought this title lacked the tight focus and some of the subtlety of the predecessor though I found the ending stronger. This is rather like a picaresque novel as it follows the travails of a curator of a museum devoted to contemporary art in Stockholm. One nice touch is that the museum is called ‘X-Royal’ because it is sited alongside and uses part of  the original Royal Palace.

In the course of the narrative we follow Christian (Claes Bang) at work and outside of the museum. And we meet a range of other characters including his managers and colleagues, his children from a separated marriage and the privileged members of the ‘Friends of the Museum’. The Museum and its patrons are the main target in a feature that is predominately satire. The museum elite and the patrons are holders of what French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu termed ‘cultural capital’. And the film draws a contrast between these members or hangers-on of the bourgeoisie and a range of characters from the lower depths of the working class, possessing literally no or minimal cultural capital.

Some powerful and at times sardonic sequences in the film focus on this class conflict. And Christian’s metaphorical journey in the film appears to be designed to accomplish something similar in audiences. So the film veers between almost slapstick humour, sometimes heavy-handed satire and emotive dramatic moments. It is a long film, 140 minutes. I do not think it is too long but in the weaker moments I was conscious of the length. A member of the audience opined that

‘the film tried to include too much’.

I think this is accurate but it is also that the film has too many targets whereas Force Majeure limited itself effectively to gender and family contradictions. The Square reminded me of the 2016 festival entry Tony Erdmann. Both films follow a picaresque form, both are partly satirical partly dramatic; and both target aspect of European political culture. But both are scripted by the director and I think a specialist scriptwriter would have improved the work. It is the sort of film that Jean Claude Carriere would have been good on.

The film is very well produced. The cast are excellent. Even in some of the more bizarre scenes they are completely convincing. The technical aspects are extremely well done in terms of settings, cinematography, sound and editing. The last named technique uses abrupt cuts frequently positioning the audience to fill in an ellipsis and its consequences. The production team are especially good at the use of stairwells, two finely presented settings. The title was shot on the Codex digital system and on Alexa cameras. It is distributed in a 2K DCP which looks fine.

It is a film I think I will see again. It goes on general release via Curzon (who follow somewhat restrictive practices) in 2018. It has a couple of genuinely shocking sequences. The BBFC have not released their certification yet but I would expect it to receive a ’15’.