October 31, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:04 am
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Director: Todd Haynes

85 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

The United States, presumably across different times. There are three separate narratives, with regular cross-cutting between all three. The first, Hero, features a seven year old boy, Richie, who has murdered his father and according to his mother, jumps from the window and flies away. In documentary style, Richie’s mother and several characters close to him reveal the circumstances that led up to this tragedy. Classmates, teachers and neighbours remember Richie as a difficult child. His mother reveals that Richie murdered his father because he witnesses his father violently beating his mother. The second, Horror, a scientist named Dr Graves captures the sex drive, a discovery that receives scorn from his contemporaries but he endeavours to continue his research. After accidentally ingesting this serum, he becomes a leprous sex attacker on the run from the police, only able to turn to his colleague Nancy Olsen. The third, Homo, is set in an all-male prison. John Broom is a petty thief imprisoned once more. He recognises one inmate, Jack Bolton, whom he was acquainted with when imprisoned decades before when he witnessed his humiliation at the hands of other prisoners. Broom then rapes Bolton before recalling what he witnessed.


‘Poison’ was Todd Haynes’ debut feature, although he had previously stirred controversy with the wonderfully inventive 1987 short ‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story’, which chronicled the life of the late singer, ingeniously using Barbie dolls (carved according to the extent of her anorexia), but was removed from distribution for copyright infringement, notwithstanding the fact that the rest of the Carpenters were portrayed in a negative light.

An early film of the New Queer Cinema movement (which also includes the early films of Gregg Araki and Tom Kalin), ‘Poison’ is a triptych of narratives based on the works of Jean Genet, notably ‘The Thief’s Journal’, ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’ and ‘The Miracle of the Rose’. Although individually these narratives are very different in tone and content, they are related by themes of sexuality and violence, and the central characters in each tale are outsiders; Richie has become isolated and withdrawn because of domestic troubles, Dr Graves has been made a pariah because of his physical deterioration, and John Bloom has been rejected since he was a child, and by spending time in and out of jail, he has rejected the society that rejected him. Although Bloom has excluded himself from ‘normal’ society for good, Richie and Dr Graves are on the periphery. In Richie’s case, Haynes uses a typical melodrama scenario; that of a superficially perfect American middle class family where not everything is as it seems. Indeed, as the documentary of Richie progresses, Haynes allows this façade to crumble, with even Richie’s mother unable to paper over the cracks, confessing to first adultery and then murder. For Dr Graves, his search for truth and knowledge produced radical research that society did not want to accept. Afflicted by his research, society excludes him further.

Much has been written about ‘Horror’ acting as an AIDS allegory. Dr Graves’ condition turns him into a sexual predator and is so contagious that just one touch or more upon his ‘victims’ afflicts them with the same physically repulsive disease he has. The public hysteria towards Graves’ condition surely reflects the equally hysterical reaction in the late 1980s towards the AIDS epidemic, which had just entered the public consciousness and was considered a homosexual plague. ‘Poison’s’ prologue quotes Genet, almost predicting this hysteria: “the whole world is dying of panicky fright”. This was a theme that Haynes would return to and develop with 1995 film ‘Safe’, in which Julianne Moore’s unknown illness was seen as a reference to AIDS and/or social conformity. Certainly by the early 1990s, AIDS has seldom been approached by any American filmmakers. It was not until 1993 with ‘Philadelphia’ that Hollywood would raise the issue; therefore ‘Poison’ is a remarkably groundbreaking film for its sensitive and sympathetic approach to the subject.

For a debut feature, Haynes demonstrates an incredibly mature sense of the visual nature of film. All three narratives are filmed not only in different styles; a documentary, a 1950’s black and white B-movie pastiche and in Genet-esque fashion (referencing the 1950 film ‘Un Chant D’Amour) respectively, but also in different colour tones, which should be of no surprise to those who saw the brilliant use of colour in Haynes’ 2002 Sirk-inspired ‘Far From Heaven’. The most notable example of this is in ‘Homo’, which alternates between past and present with distinctive and different colour palettes. The present scenes are shot in very dark blues with shadows. The past scenes are shot in much brighter colours, almost artificially bright, with Bolton’s humiliation in reform school shown in a highly stylised fashion, but which becomes increasingly difficult to absorb as we witness fellow inmates spitting in the face of Bolton, reminiscent of the kind of sexual degradation seen in Pasolini’s ‘Salo’.

Haynes’ debut suffers from a degree of amateurism, mainly in terms of acting, but is certainly an incredibly inventive and impressive first film, displaying a composure that belies his inexperience at this point. Clearly though it showed that Haynes was a gifted film maker who would be capable of going onto greater things, as indeed was the case with both ‘Safe’ and ‘Far From Heaven’ in particular. Innovative in terms of themes it addresses and in the boundaries it aims to push, ‘Poison’ is a fascinating exploration of the links between sex and violence, and the consequences of defying society’s narrow moral boundaries.


October 27, 2008

Three Monkeys

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 8:18 pm
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Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

109 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Istanbul, the present day. Servet, a businessman and aspiring politician accidentally kills a man in a late night car accident. Fearing for his career, he asks his driver, Eyup to accept responsibility for the accident. Servet assures Eyup that he will provide for his wife, Hacer, and his son, Ismail during his imprisonment and will reward him upon release. Servet then begins an affair with Hacer, which Ismail discovers when he returns home early from visiting his father in prison. Servet then terminates the affair.

After nine months, Eyup is released from prison. He also suspects his wife’s infidelity when he answers Hacer’s mobile phone when Servet calls, asking Hacer to leave him alone. Servet also meets her to reiterate that their affair is over. Eyup then becomes more aggressive towards Hacer, physically assaulting her. The police visit to inform the family that Servet has been found dead, and that Hacer’s phone number was the last called by Servet. Ismail then reveals that he killed Servet. Eyup then asks Bayram, who works in a tearoom but aspires to own his own business, to accept responsibility for Servet’s death, promising a large payout upon his release.


The past decade has seen an impressive revival in Turkish cinema, partly because of the works of Zeki Demirkubuz, the German-born Fatih Akin, and perhaps most crucially Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose films alone have won several dozen awards at major international film festivals, including three successive Golden Palm nominations at Cannes. Film critics globally have similarly acclaimed ‘Three Monkeys’ and Ceylan also the Best Director award at Cannes this year. Ceylan’s previous films have been notable for their pared-down minimalism and the exploration of issues such as estrangement and detachment.

‘Three Monkeys’ is cut from similar cloth, although unusually for Ceylan, it is more easily definable in terms of genre that his previous films to date, showing greater ambition. One might classify ‘Three Monkeys’ as a more straight-forward thriller, in which the lie upon which the foundations of the film are based upon unleashes a range of strong emotions; guilt, infidelity, memory, revenge, that threaten to devastate an already precarious family unit. Ceylan reveals a trauma from the past with the recurring image of a drowned child, whom both Eyup and Ismail see in different scenes. Both father and son tend the grave of the drowned son/brother, which perhaps suggests an incident, which either or both could have avoided, and considering the non-communication between Eyup and Hacer before his imprisonment, it is clearly an incident that the family has not been able to put behind it. It is intriguing how much information Ceylan withholds from his audience. For instance, the director shows none of the main dramatic episodes; the car accident, Servet and Hacer’s affair, and Servet’s murder. It is not these episodes themselves that are important, but their consequences and the reactions of those affected.

There is a notable absence of politics in Ceylan’s films. His films involve individuals and their relationships, rather than any greater social or political context. However, there is one subtle scene in ‘Three Monkeys’, which might easily be missed which is perhaps the most overtly political he has filmed. It is hard to imagine that it was just coincidental or innocuously included. A television report refers to the 2007 Turkish elections, from which the conservative AK party formed a government, although it has subsequently been challenged both by organisations concerned about its apparent threat to the Turkish secular constitution. Although the scene does not reveal the director’s personal political sympathies, it reflects a growing interest in the volatile political situation in Turkey.

Typically for Ceylan, ‘Three Monkeys’ is visually breathtaking, augmented by the choice of digital video, which intensifies the brooding and oppressive atmosphere his protagonists find themselves in. His sound design of thunder, rainstorms and barking dogs add to this environment, as does the deliberate muting of his colour palette. By using long, static takes of faces, often sweat-soaked, in close up, Ceylan reveals his characters’ fear and guilt, and increases the sense of disorientation and disorder by shooting actors from unconventional angles, reinforcing that not all is right with this family unit, quickly falling apart at the seams, not just because of Eyup’s lie but evidently circumstances which preceded it. Few directors, and certainly even fewer now, use the physical word so effortlessly to reflect the interior torments of their protagonists. It is a talent than Antonioni and Tarkovsky possessed, and in many ways Ceylan is a natural successor of both.

Despite the success of ‘Three Monkeys’ at Cannes and subsequent film festivals, early reviews have pointed out that the various narrative strands are contrived and too neatly resolved; for instance the offer Eyup makes to the hapless Bayram to take responsibility for Servet’s death is a means of completing the narrative full circle. However, these small plot machinations should not distract audiences from appreciating the film’s more impressive accomplishments. ‘Three Monkeys’ confirms Ceylan as one of the most interesting and challenging contemporary filmmakers. Although he is mostly respected as a visual artist, which is not surprising given his roots as a photographer, there is an added narrative depth to ‘Three Monkeys, even if it does not totally succeed. It is an encouraging sign that Ceylan is pursuing a more ambitious direction and taking risks rather than merely settling for what he has already shown himself to be capable of.

October 22, 2008

24 City

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:07 pm
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China/Hong Kong/Japan

Director: Jia Zhangke

112 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Chengdu, in the South-West of China, the present day. 420, a state-owned factory that previously produced military parts and equipment and in the more peaceful recent past changed and became a producer of consumer goods, is closing down. The factory comprised part of a wider community, kept secret and isolated from surrounding areas. The entire area has been bought by a private company, who are renovating the area into a modern residential complex, known as 24 City. A filmmaker interviews a number of people whose lives have been shaped by the factory; those who grew up there, those who worked there and those who lived there. These individuals reminisce about the factory and what it means to them, as well as their personal stories living in the community. These include men who have worked at the factory since its heyday in the 1950s, women who were sacked during the start of the decline of the factory in the 1980s, a news anchor reporting on the close of the factory and a young daughter of a worker. As the factory is gradually torn down, the development of the new residential complex becomes more apparent.


Those familiar with the films of Jia Zhangke will not be too surprised by the basis for ’24 City’. Since ‘Xiao Wu’, he has tackled themes arising from China’s successful economic transition since the 1980s. His outlook remains as ambiguous as ever; his main focus is concentrating on those who have been overlooked in the new capitalist China, those whose lives have been affected in the most uncertain fashion. Much like ‘Still Life’, the director investigates the wholesale effects upon an entire community, which has been relocated or lost in the name of economic progress. Jia Zhangke’s previous film featured the demolition of Fengjie, a town that made way for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which displaced over a million Chinese in total. ’24 City’ demonstrates how capitalism is equally unsentimental.

From interviews with older workers, we discover how this community previously moved according to the demands of the state. This community was originally situated in the Northeastern provinces for strategic reasons because of the Chinese intervention in the Korean War. Concerns about an American attack on military factories meant that they were relocated to the Southwest of China, such as 420, now based in Chengdu. This is a similar premise to Xiaoshuai Wang’s ‘Shanghai Dreams’. In both, communities are resettled literally across the entire country (a journey which took 15 days according to one interviewee, who lost her son on the way), without choice, and yet when these communities have outlived their economic use, they are just disregarded and moved on. The factory exists almost as a microcosm for Chinese economic progress since Communist rule began. What began as a military factory became one producing consumer goods for domestic and international use in the 1980s, reflecting Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to open up the Chinese economy. Demands for increased efficiency and output had adverse effects on this community, with many employees losing their jobs because they were competing with other domestic factories producing the same goods. Factories inevitably lost out from competition, which explains the fate of 420, now demolished to accommodate homes for China’s new economic elite. It is not just a factory that is being destroyed but also an entire community, which also included education and recreation facilities, but there is little provision for readjustment. These economic reforms have changed the mindset of the Chinese youth on the other hand. The interviewee played by Tao Zhao, born in 1982, is accustomed to the China’s shifting priorities, and is certainly more money-orientated than her predecessors. Compare her with her parents for instance, and one might suggest a reflection of China’s change from a collectivist economic outlook to entrepreneurial capitalism.

If this makes ’24 City’ and Jia Zhangke’s work in general sound dry and too overtly political to be engaging, then it should not be forgotten that he is also a technically gifted director. Having used animated sequences in ‘The World’ and a UFO in ‘Still Life’, Jia Zhangke eschews realism when necessary to enhance his point. For ’24 City’, he rejects a truly realistic form of documentary, replacing it with a form of docudrama. From the nine interviewees, five are genuine workers from 420 and its community, but four are actors (including Joan Chen and the director’s muse Tao Zhao) whose stories are a composite from those that Jia Zhangke discovered during the film’s production. During the interview with ‘Little Flower’, the character played by Joan Chen, we learn that she was given this nickname from a film of the same name (which is also shown on a TV set) in which Joan Chen acted because of her resemblance to the actress. Of course this is just a cinematic in-joke, but it takes on greater significance because it was a rare pre-Fifth generation film that was more than just political propaganda. In that sense, the films of Jia Zhangke continue that trend of observing China in a distinctly impartial and objective way.

As a symbol of China’s economic progress, ’24 City’ is much more considerable and poignant than even Jia Zhangke imagined because of events that occurred in the Chengdu region recently. In May 2008, a devastating earthquake caused much damage to the area, with 80,000 deaths and another 20,000 injured. This incident reinforces how brittle economic development is in the face of natural disasters in regions already known to be precarious. Yet the rush towards progress demands risk-taking and redeveloping areas regardless of the consequences, whether natural or social.

Not since Antonioni has a director made such effective use of images within each framed shot to reflect his themes. Perhaps the most affecting scene in the film is during the final days of the community – on the roof of an apartment block, a young girl skates, whilst the expressway in the background becomes increasingly busy in grid locked. This scene evidently plays out for some time given that it turns from day to night in this time. It is an impressive juxtaposition of images, the blending of this traditional community and the economically progressive world about to replace it in one frame. Perhaps it acts as a metaphor not only for Jia Zhangke’s films overall but also the modern China; an uneasy balance between convention and evolution, between the past and the future.

October 19, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 2:17 pm
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Director: Ron Howard

122 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

The United States, 1974-1977. Following the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon resigns as President of the United States. During this time, the British talk-show host David Frost fronts a rather anodyne Australian television programme. Watching television coverage of Nixon’s resignation, he suggests to John Birt, the producer of his British programme, a series of interviews with Nixon who is now retired in California. Frost negotiates a figure of around $500,000 with Nixon’s agent, although Frost has yet to secure a deal with any American television networks or any advertising. Nixon agrees to the interviews because he thinks that a talk-show host will be less hostile than any of the American news anchors.

The interviews finally proceed, recorded in four two-hour sessions concentrating on different aspects of Nixon’s presidency. The first three interviews are perfectly handled by Nixon, who is able to deflect Frost’s questions and stonewall as much as possible. The evening prior to the Watergate interview, Frost receives a telephone call from Nixon, which is a turning point. Frost then regains the initiative, and Nixon is unable to repel Frost’s more determined and direct questions. Finally, Nixon acknowledges his guilt and provides an apology to the American people.


Adapted by Peter Morgan from his own successful and acclaimed stage play, ‘Frost/Nixon’ is a typically middlebrow drama from Ron Howard and examines one of the most controversial incidents in recent American history, The Watergate Scandal. Written and subsequently filmed through a prism of fact and fiction, ‘Frost/Nixon’ both recreates and imagines the aftermath of Watergate, from the resignation of Nixon, the negotiations between Frost and Nixon to secure four televised interviews, and finally the interviews themselves. As in both ‘The Deal’ and ‘The Queen’, Morgan takes factual events and uses a degree of creative license for dramatic purposes but also for greater insight into these events. How much of ‘Frost/Nixon’ is factually accurate, it might be difficult to tell, but perhaps the most intriguing element of this adaptation is how it draws parallels between its two protagonists, who are far more alike than either might wish to believe.

Both Frost and Nixon need these interviews to revive their careers. Frost is a ratings-obsessed and fiercely ambitious talk-show host whose international success has diminished over the previous decade, whilst Nixon is the fallen former President, seeking a large payout but also rehabilitation in the eyes of the American people. Morgan uses one incident in the film, which one imagines is fictional, to demonstrate a symbiotic relationship between the two men – the telephone call that Nixon makes to Frost the night before the final interview, which focuses on Watergate. In his dossier on Frost, Nixon discovers that they are both from humble origins and both victims of snobbery. Nixon explains to Frost “no matter how high we get, they look down on us” and their shared tragedy is that of demanding the respect of those who look down on them. The other purpose of this telephone conversation is to change the dynamic in the Frost/Nixon relationship, from Nixon’s ascendancy to Frost’s. In this sense, Howard’s film then explores a more conventional and formulaic dramatic conclusion. Frost had previously appeared to us as a playboy who was under-prepared when interviewing Nixon, but now recovers his purpose and drive, becoming determined to bring Nixon to a form of justice. This development seems rather contrived, with the conclusion reduced that of a hero recovering in the nick of time to achieve the cathartic apology that the country needs. Perhaps this is more effective in theatrical rather than cinematic terms.

If the main emphasis of ‘Frost/Nixon’ is to highlight the relationship between its two protagonists and the moment in which Nixon admitted his guilt and contrition over the Watergate scandal, then the theme of television itself should not be overlooked or underestimated. Nixon’s first notorious brush with the television was the famous presidential debate of 1960 with John F. Kennedy, which according to some determined the result of a very tight election. Is it therefore of some surprise that Nixon allowed himself to be involved once more in a medium he was suspicious of, which had previously derailed his political career? Since Frost interviewed Nixon is a series of recorded, rather than live interviews, Morgan is able to make numerous salient points about television – a medium that is open to manipulation, which provides a version of the truth, if not strictly the truth itself. Howard focuses on the scenes off-camera as much as those on-camera, highlighting that television can be an artificial process. Recordings are frequently interrupted, notably after Nixon has replied to each question, so that he can mop the sweat from his top lip, a reference perhaps to the ill-fated presidential debate with Kennedy. Therefore, we do not get a completely seamless and natural interpretation of events and we are offered rumination upon politics as a media-controlled entity.

Although the original stage play includes asides and reflections by various supporting characters, such as James Reston Jr, one of Frost’s researchers, and Jack Brennan, Nixon’s aide-de-camp, their use in a cinematic version of the stage play is rather redundant, given that the film is clearly not bound by the limits of the theatre. These asides merely reiterate and reflect upon what we have witnessed. What is also clear is that some of the supporting parts are either underwritten or unimportant. The role of Caroline Cushing, whom Frost meets on a plane, seems little more than device to confirm that Frost is a jet-setting playboy more interested in his glamorous, show business lifestyle than serious journalism. Perhaps though she is a useful foil for Frost to project his insecurities upon, since superficially at least (and as seen by others), he is cool and composed. Essentially though, the film is a two-header, a confrontation between two evenly matched protagonists with much in common, and Michael Sheen and Frank Langella successfully reprise their stage roles, perfectly capturing the mannerisms of both men, if not quite their look. Morgan’s screenplay effectively examines their relationship and motivations, and Howard competently enough, without surprises. ‘Frost/Nixon’ a solid work of drama, which will no doubt be a contender during the awards season.

October 18, 2008

The River

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:54 pm
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France/India/USA, 1951

Director: Jean Renoir

99 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

India, the final years of the British Raj. An adult, unseen Harriet narrates a reflection upon her childhood. A middle class English family reside in a Bengal village. The father runs a jute mill, whilst the mother, assisted by an Indian nanny, runs the household, including seven children. Their idyllic existence, a combination of traditionally English and Indian influences and values, is turned upside down by the arrival of the cousin of their neighbour, Captain John. An American pilot who was severely injured in an unspecified conflict (perhaps the Second World War), he unwittingly becomes the object of attention and affection for three young girls; Harriet and Valerie from the English family, and Melanie, the Anglo-Indian daughter of their neighbour.

During this period of emotional turbulence, genuine tragedy strikes when a snake that he has attempted to charm kills Bobby, Harriet’s only brother. Harriet then attempts suicide in the treacherous evening current of the river because of her guilt about this incident and her perceived loss of Captain John to her older sister. Captain John saves her in time. Captain John’s real interest is in Melanie, but their differences are too insurmountable to overcome. After which, Captain John departs the village. Harriet learns the lesson that life must go on, much like the river must keep flowing.


One of the finest French film makers, Renoir’s career in his native country was interrupted by the Second World War. Having fled to the United States, his Hollywood career has been considered mostly uneven, although his 1945 film ‘The Southerner’ has its admirers; noted film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum amongst them. ‘The River’ was a new phase in Renoir’s career however. It was directly inspired by an interest in Indian culture, which can be seen in the enthusiasm of the English family towards native traditions and customs. More intriguingly perhaps, it was Renoir’s film colour film, but instead of merely coming to terms with a new technical innovation, Renoir uses Technicolor like few others directors previously had. By painting over natural objects and utilising intense post-production, Renoir provides an explosion of colour, perhaps best demonstrated in the Diwali festival with its fireworks and bright costumes. The aesthetical qualities of ‘The River’ compare favourably with the great Powell and Pressburger collaborations of the time, including ‘Black Narcissus’ (adapted from Rumer Godden, author of ‘The River’ and perhaps most closely ‘The Red Shoes’.

On the surface, ‘The River’ resembles an ordinary teenage coming of age tale. Three young girls are intrigued by the mysterious arrival of an American pilot to their village. Renoir certainly demonstrates a poignant and sympathetic attitude to the first pangs of adolescent love, with also coincides with and increases the insecurities of each of those involved. Harriet, a self-confessed ugly duckling finds it difficult to compete and compare with her more extroverted sister, Valerie. It is perhaps Valerie’s vivacity, which means her attempts to engage with Captain John are destined to come to nothing. Captain John has his own personal issues; an inability to come to terms with his disability and to reintegrate him back into mainstream society after the war has brought him to India. He finds it easier to empathise with those with a similar disposition, which explains his growing attraction towards Melanie. The daughter of an Irishman and a late Indian woman, she is born without caste and in constant conflict about her identity. Furthermore, this complex results in a growing resistance to Captain John despite his interest. In one moving and telling conversation, he asks, “Can I help you?” to which she responds, “Can anyone?” as if her issues cannot be resolved by anything or anybody.

Whilst the peaceful transition of English family to an Indian way of life and an easy sense of integration might constitute a degree of historical revisionism and promotion of colonialism as a benevolent arrangement, there is no doubt that Renoir feels a natural affinity with this world. He demonstrates a keen observation of traditional customs, and much like Renoir’s comedies, ‘The River’ has a distinctly lyrical feel. Harriet’s voiceover reveals that the traditions of these native families have existed for over a thousand years and her own interest in the native culture, which she writes about in her diary, reflects Renoir’s own understanding and appreciation. Having been an itinerant director for about a decade, separated from his own country and people, it is natural he should empathise so greatly with the film’s protagonists and also with India, as a spiritually uplifting environment. Renoir’s constant cuts towards shots of the river indicate that it has a life of its own and that its people have an intense spiritual and physical dependence upon it. The river itself perhaps no longer becomes just the title of the film but also its central character, as demonstrated by the poignant poem that Harriet reads in the film’s final moments – “the river runs, the round world spins…”. At the core of this poem is the belief that life must go on in spite of all struggles. For instance, immediately preceding this final scene is a Hindu celebration of a new season, of trees and flowers in bloom. This coincides with the birth of a new brother for Harriet, representing a fresh start for the family after Bobby’s death. The anticipation of this birth is shown by the three girls peering through gaps in a wall of marble, just as they did when Captain John initially arrived. This repeated motif possibly represents a new drama for the family to experience and that life has moved on after the arrival and departure of Captain John. ‘The River’ is a film simply about life, about its dramas and tribulations and the confidence to deal with them. It’s an uncomplicated message but very effective all the same.

October 14, 2008

The World

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:46 pm
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China/Japan/France, 2004

Director: Jia Zhangke

With: Tao Zhao, Taisheng Chen, Jue Jing

143 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

China, the present day. The World Park, in the southwestern suburb of Beijing is a 47 acre area of gardens featuring miniatures of over a hundred world famous landmarks and is one of Beijing’s most popular attractions. Tao, a dancer and Taisheng, a security guard are having a relationship that is not without its problems. He is frustrated by her refusal to make love and taunts her because of her virginity.

A number of workers from rural parts of China begin work at the park, as do a group of young Russian women, whose passports are confiscated. Tao begins a budding friendship with Anna, one of the Russian women. While Taisheng flirts with a married fashion designer, Tao rejects the advances of a bar owner who promises her better opportunities. Tao discovers that Anna is now working at the bar, which is nothing more than a strip club. Tao and Taisheng are reunited after the death of his reckless brother and there is an inferred conclusion that the pair dies in a gas explosion.


Whilst the internationally celebrated Fifth Generation of Chinese film makers might have successfully critiqued the repressive society under a Communist leadership, it hasn’t yet really tackled the thriving capitalist economy and the social changes that have resulted from it. This responsibility has fallen onto the Sixth Generation, which has arguably outstripped the previous generation in both relevance and interest now that the Fifth Generation is content with engaging with the Communist establishment it once fiercely reacted against. Wang Xiaoshuai offered his own ambivalent tone towards globalisation and emerging capitalism with ‘Beijing Bicycle’ and ‘Shanghai Dreams’, but the most prominent and respected film maker of his generation is Jia Zhangke. Previously known for his underground films ‘Xiao Wu’ (based on Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket), ‘Platform’ and ‘Unknown Pleasures’, seen as an informal trilogy about China’s rapid path towards modernisation, ‘The World’ arguably surpasses each of these in scope and ambition. Intriguingly, it is the first of Jia Zhangke’s films to be officially approved by the government. This official legitimisation of his work has not compromised his desire to reflect Chinese society as it genuinely is and to highlight the consequences of this social and economic transition.

‘The World’, much like ‘Beijing Bicycle’ and Jia Zhangke’s following film ‘Still Life’ acknowledge that the main foundation of China’s recent economic success is the uprooting of much of the rural population to existing or newly built cities. Both Tai and Taisheng are from the Shanxi province in the North of China, and it is likely that most of the other staff are from similar regions. In addition, there is the influx of overseas workers, demonstrated in the Russian women who are later lured into prostitution after their passports are confiscated. Chinese success might only be achieved upon the utilisation and exploitation of its labour, but these workers are not reaping the benefits of a rapidly growing economy. Jia Zhangke reinforces this point by concentrating on the experiences of the workers, who live in cramped and dilapidated accommodation and earn low wages, rather than the outward glamour of the World Park. Tourist attractions such as these are amongst the few opportunities available to a generation that has been uprooted from its home, but perhaps they are not so despairing compared to the other work available, such as working in sweatshops producing fake fashions and prostitution. Jia Zhangke emphasises that there is a thin line between falling from legal to illegal employment and that China’s economic sense is certainly based upon both.

There is a distinct irony to the film’s title, which reflects not only globalisation and China’s emergence as a major player in international affairs, but also what the World Park offers. The female voiceover that constantly plays around the park proudly boasts that it provides a chance to see the world. Of course this is not really the world, just an imitation. By recreating the world for its people, the World Park actually increases a sense of insularity, dulling one’s enthusiasm to generally see the world outside of China. In this sense, it appears like a Ballardian view of the future; a dystopian environment catering for one’s imagination and desire to see the world and experience different cultures. There is no need to travel anywhere because the world is on one’s doorstep, even if it is a completely simulated experience. There is also Jia Zhangke’s extended metaphor of the monorail train that transports passengers around the park within fifteen minutes, literally taking them round in circles, and perhaps reflecting the emotional entanglements of Tao and Taisheng, whose relationship never seems to go anywhere. Jia Zhangke continues the trend of early Antonioni films of using environment and the juxtaposition of images in a scene to intensify the disillusionment and isolation of his protagonists.

As was the case in ‘Still Life’, Jia Zhangke temporarily abandons realism in places for thematic purposes. He uses animation techniques whenever Tao and Taisheng communicate by text message, partly a reflection no doubt on the remarkably high usage of mobile phones in China, but also to reflect the fact that the couple only ever appear to communicate in this impersonal fashion, rather than verbally, face to face. It is ironic that these young people who share a language find it so difficult to interact and communicate given that Tao and Anna begin a tentative friendship despite a severe language barrier. There’s a poignant scene when Tao meets Anna in the strip club, realising that Anna is now trapped in the world of prostitution, and both women cry in mutual sympathy at their mutual exploitation. This requires no words. Globalisation brings cultures and people together and in this sense Jia Zhangke provides a positive spin on this phenomenon, but this is perhaps the sole respite in his general ambivalence to modernisation and economic progress. With ‘The World’, Jia Zhangke has pursued similar themes as he had with his preceding films, and he would continue to do so with ‘Still Life’, which followed this film. However when the results are so remarkable and insightful, this should not be an issue.


Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 8:41 pm
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Italy, 2008

Director: Matteo Garrone

With: Salvatore Abruzzese, Simone Sacchettino, Salvatore Ruocco

137 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Naples, the present day. The Camorra, the criminal underworld organisation runs a number of legal and illegal activities to finance itself, which are shown through a series of separate narratives. Toto is a young boy who runs errands for his mother, but falls in with the Camorra. Don Ciro is a middle aged accountant; the human face of this world of crime, who becomes increasingly aware of the violence around him. Marco and Ciro are two reckless young men under the influence of Hollywood gangster films, who attempt to go their own way, outside of the Camorra. Franco is a superficially respectable businessman who disposes of toxic waste in abandoned quarries with no regard for safety. Pasquale is a tailor who accepts a lucrative offer from his Chinese rivals to improve the standards and productivity of their workers. At the same time, the Camorra is engaged in war with rival organisations, increasing the violence and bloodshed on the streets.


Hollywood interpretations of the gangster film have either deliberately or otherwise tended to create a romantic and mythological portrait of this world. This is an issue Garrone tackles with one of the narrative strands of ‘Gomorrah’, with the independently minded Marco and Ciro. These two men are naïve and hopelessly out of their depth; their view of the criminal world completely influenced by films, not experience. Their main influence is De Palma’s ‘Scarface’, which ironically glamorised Tony Montana’s ambition and success, encompassed in the blimp that informed him “the world is yours”. ‘Scarface’ remains the best example of the gangster film least taken at face value, with impressionable audiences overlooking the theme of crime as unrestrained capitalism run amok, but concentrating on the cool of Montana. Marco and Ciro re-enact scenes from ‘Scarface’, quote dialogue endlessly, falsely believing, like Montana, that they are invincible.

Garrone does not consider the Camorra as a glamorous organisation, and demonstrates this by showing it not from the top end of the hierarchy where power and finances reside, but at the lowest possible level. The five separate narratives focus on individuals who join the Camorra as a means of making a living. These are the foot soldiers doing the organisation’s dirty work. Setting the film in a dirty run down housing complex which seems to be controlled by the Camorra and houses those on its payroll, Garrone provides us an insular environment that might be part of any inner city. This is a tight-knit and self-sufficient community that has no interference from outsiders. Despite the violence, the only instance the police intervene is when the mother of a boy who has rejected the Camorra is murdered. It is therefore no surprise that when the boys on the estate reach adolescence; they seek to join the Camorra. There are no other opportunities for these boys; there is no obvious world outside the organisation, and joining the Camorra is a rite of passage. Toto and several other boys are initiated into the organisation by being shot at whilst wearing a bulletproof vest; after which Toto is informed; “now you’re a man!” Once one grows up in the world of the Camorra, this is one’s future is clearly mapped out.

Garrone is also keen to show a contemporary view of Italian society in the wake of rising immigration. These new communities have also turned to crime as a means of establishing and sustaining themselves, and they represent serious rivals to the activities of the Camorra. The North African community deal in hard drugs, whilst the Chinese community run clothing sweatshops and seek to undercut the Camorra-controlled fashion house for whom Pasquale in the tailor. These new communities are just one of the emerging threats to the power and position of the Camorra. Rival criminal organisations are another, and the growing civil war between these warring elements results in the amount of bloodshed that has some of the peripheral, non-violent participants in this power struggle wanting to escape, although escape is impossible.

Perhaps the most disturbing impact of ‘Gomorrah’ is not the violence and illegal activities of the Camorra, but the legal enterprises they engage in, which have an impact on the lives of all Italian citizens, and even across the world. As an epilogue, Garrone provides statistics about the work of the Camorra. Not only are they the most vicious organisation in Europe, responsible for the most murders (40,000 in the last thirty years), but they are also involved in the reconstruction of the Twin Towers. It should be of great concern that projects such as these are funded by illegal activities, but perhaps these potential ethical minefields are overlooked, even though they afford a level of respectability to the criminal organisations that fund them.

Inevitably, ‘Gomorrah’ will be compared with Hollywood gangster films, and the closest comparison is probably ‘Goodfellas’. Both are based on in-depth and investigative accounts on the activities of criminal organisations. Although Garrone does not employ the stylistic touches that Scorsese did, preferring to present the Camorra simply as it is; a violent and brutal community without sympathy and compassion. However, Garrone uses a number of technical flourishes to emphasis his attitude towards the Camorra. One superbly directed scene implicates Don Ciro, the accountant, from the violence he sought to distance himself from. As he leaves a bloodbath, the camera begins directly above him, and then turns 360 degrees, as if to witness the violence around Don Ciro, that he is partly responsible for, which precipitates a complete crisis of conscience. Garrone also presents this community in a nutshell in an early long shot of the entire housing estate, which focuses on its brutal architectural design, but shot from a distance allows the audience to absorb its insularity and ability to entrap its inhabitants. Avoiding the pitfalls of many films of the genre, of mythologising its protagonists and affording them a tragic dimension, ‘Gomorrah’ is an intense adaptation of the Robert Saviano novel, which reveals the violence and brutality that characterises this organisation, but also hints at the social issues that allows such organisations to flourish.

Fox and his Friends

West Germany, 1975

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

With: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Peter Chatel, Karlheinz Böhm

123 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

West Germany, the mid-1970s. Franz Biberkopf (‘Fox’) works at a carnival booth, which is closed by police when the proprietor, also Fox’s lover is arrested for tax fraud. Homeless and destitute, Fox meets Max, an older, evidently well off man and they discuss having sex. Using the money loaned to him by a gay florist whom he threatened to expose, Fox wins DM500,000 on the lottery. Fox is then introduced to the bourgeois world by Max and soon begins a relationship with Eugen. Fox’s love is evidently not reciprocated, and it is clear Eugen is only with Fox because of his money. Fox is too blinded by his feelings to notice, even though his working class friends find Eugen’s intentions all too transparent. Fox rejects their advice, claiming envy.

Fox then loans Eugen’s father DM100,000 to save his company, which is on the verge of bankruptcy, whilst Fox and Eugen take a vacation to Morocco to save their relationship. Eugen convinces Fox to engage in a threesome with an Arab man, only to be told that Arabs are not permitted in this specific hotel and that the hotel can provide male escorts. Fox attends dinner at the home of Eugen’s family; at which Fox embarrasses his hosts with his lack of table manners or refined behaviour. Eugen then breaks up with Fox. Fox’s money has run out and when he attempts to recover the money he was loaned, he discovers that the contract he signed has effectively swindled him, and Eugen keeps the flat that they shared. Heartbroken, Fox takes an overdose of Valium and dies in the street. As he lies dead, two young boys rob him.


One of the early films in what might be described as the second phase of Fassbinder’s career, which arguably began in 1972 with ‘The Merchant of Four Seasons’ and ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’, ‘Fox and his Friends’ is indicative of the Sirk-influenced melodramas he made after his avant-garde origins. Like Sirk, Fassbinder realised that melodrama could be used as a means of subtly satirising contemporary society, specifically issues of class differences and emotional repression. Although Fassbinder’s melodramas covered similar ground, the film that ‘Fox and his Friends’ perhaps has most in common with is ‘Martha’, which almost immediately preceded this film. In ‘Martha’, a spontaneous and vivacious young woman falls in love with a bourgeois man who begins to control and oppress her during their marriage. Martha submissively accepts her oppression, giving the impression of enjoying it. In a sense, ‘Fox and his Friends’ is almost a homosexual twist upon this film. Fox, who is working class but has money after a lottery win, falls in love with Eugen, a man far more sophisticated and intelligent that him, and becomes complicit in Eugen’s manipulation of him.

Fassbinder was a constant critic of post-war German society, believing that the ‘German economic miracle’ that had been in place since the 1950s was nothing more than a façade, only made possible by the injection of American economic aid. Despite this so-called transition, Fassbinder felt that nothing had changed, that German society existed precisely as it had done before the Second World War, and that prosperity did nothing to change the rigid social class boundaries. Fox attempts to cross these boundaries after his lottery win, but society determines that he must be punished for trying to change the status quo. Fox’s ironic ‘friends’ reinforce the differences between them and him with their casual and patronising insults (“do you wash occasionally?”) and his attempt to immerse himself in their world invokes their opportunism. The more he attempts this, the greater the control applied by Eugen, despite Fox’s belief in the contrary. Note the irony when Eugen discusses buying a new car and Fox exclaims “I won’t let you talk me out of it”, as if he is control! Fox doesn’t have the values of the social class he attempts to enter (a lack of interest in opera or the theatre, boorish table manners), suggesting that is certain to fail in his attempts. This sense of fatalism is increased by the fact that Fox shares his real name with the tragic protagonist of ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’, which Fassbinder later adapted into a series for German television. Even his nickname demonstrates a sense of irony. Whilst his cunning and deviousness might be effective amongst his natural community, it cannot match the wits of the bourgeoisie. Fox places all his hope in money being the route to happiness, when it is in fact the root of all evil. In true melodramatic fashion, Fox’s realisation that he was better off as he was before comes too late in a moving scene of rejection when he pleads to Eugen “I just want to be my old self again. As I really am. Simply me!”

As a director renowned for his inventive visual ideas, ‘Fox and his Friends’ does not disappoint. Aided by his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, Fassbinder uses violent camera movements to represent moments of great drama, such as the scene in which Fox mentions his lottery win to his original lover, now released from prison. This intense close up on Eugen reveals his concern and the threat to his plan of milking Fox for his money. Fassbinder employs many relevant metaphors as well, such as a close up on a big wheel in the opening carnival scene to represent the wheel of chance perhaps, and also a scene where Fox trips after dropping the money he wanted to use to buy lottery tickets. He falls at the feet at a different set of bourgeois men, but this represents that ‘natural’ comparative relationship between Fox and this social class.

Reviled by some as an exercise in homosexual self-hatred, such an attitude obscures Fassbinder’s prime motives behind ‘Fox and his Friends’; assessing class boundaries and the impossibility of crossing them. The film is set in the gay community because this is an environment Fassbinder knows and can accurately describe, but it could have worked just as effectively in the heterosexual community. Fassbinder’s critics were perhaps expecting a gay film with a positive message but were concerned with his portrayal of this community as manipulative, selfish and deceitful. Surely it’s more accurate that it’s the bourgeoisie to whom these characteristics belong. ‘Fox and his Friends’ is one of Fassbinder’s most eloquent and moving melodramas, assisted by the director’s heartbreaking central performance.

October 8, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:09 pm

Hello, and welcome to the blog.

For almost two years, I have maintained a blog on Blogger, also named thirtyframesasecond:

As WordPress is a more contemporary piece of blogging software, I thought I would make the switch. In keeping with the theme of a new start, so will begin a slightly different style of writing to that seen on my previous blog. As I am currently undertaking a postgraduate qualification in film journalism, I will begin to use the Sight and Sound method of writing. This will include a short synopsis, with spoilers. Then will follow a longer piece of analysis. Hopefully this will seem a more professional style of blogging!

Blog at