May 28, 2009

Hunger (2008)


Director: Steve McQueen

96 min


Northern Ireland, 1981. Raymond Lohan, a guard at the Maze prison prepares for work. Lohan’s knuckles are bloodied from an unspecified incident. He appears isolated from his peers and fails to join in with their banter. Davey, an IRA prisoner arrives. He is designated as a non-conforming prisoner when he refuses to wear the prison uniform – he is given a blanket to wear. His cell-mate, Gerry, has begun a “dirty protest” in his cell, smearing the walls with his own excrement. The guards drag the prisoners from their cells by the hair, then brutally beat them without mercy. Lohan’s knuckles were bloodied from a missed punch against a wall.

A large number of riot police arrive at the prison, intimidating the prisoners with the noise of their batons and shields. The riot police then violently attack the prisoners before each has their mouth and anus probed. One prisoner headbutts a guard, after which he is savagely beaten. Lohan is then seen at a nursing home where his senile mother lives. He is killed by an IRA assassin. Bobby Sands is then met by a priest and they discuss the ethics of the hunger strike that Sands is starting. Sands is now well into his strike, his health failing and his body is deteriorating. Sands collapses trying to leave the bath, after his UDA-supporting orderly refused to help. Sands’ parents keep vigil during his last hours of life.


The debut feature by Turner Prize winning artist, Steve McQueen, ‘Hunger’ is a controversial yet artistically brilliant look at life in the notorious Maze Prison, which housed paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Critically acclaimed with some enthusiasm, including being named Sight and Sound’s film of 2008, ‘Hunger’ also played in competition at Cannes in 2008, winning the Golden Camera award for first time film makers.

British films about Northern Ireland are nothing new; whether it’s the more clinical, documentary style of Paul Greenaway’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ or Jim Sheridan’s more emotional dramas such as ‘In The Name of the Father’. These have usually scrutinised the activities of the British army or security services and exposed injustice. What separates ‘Hunger’ from the mould is that it’s a frank and no-holds barred examination of life for those paramilitaries who’ve been imprisoned for their crimes. There’s no injustice beyond the refusal of the Thatcher government to treat these men as political prisoners – in fact, we’re not even aware of the crimes they’ve been imprisoned for.

McQueen demonstrates with some venom precisely how these prisoners were treated in the Maze. From the blankets to cover their nudity when they refused to wear the prescribed prison uniform (wearing it would be accepting one’s a criminal, not a political prisoner) to the savage violence carried out by a partisan police force, which starts with the beatings by the guards and develops into full-blown, shocking violence as perpetrated by riot police, called in wholly unnecessarily, it’s a devastating exposé of the system that punishes with cold malice and eventually creates martyrs. Not that it’s depicted in an entirely one-sided fashion. There’s the deliberate goading as shown by the prisoners’ “dirty protests”, their stubbornness to play ball and their willingness to respond to violence when given the chance. McQueen at least provides a sense of balance, showing both sides of the coin and not condoning or condemning either – perhaps it’s just an atmosphere of madness beyond anyone’s control, yet he’s aware that it begins at the top, with the frequent voiceover of Thatcher and her own biased agenda in Northern Ireland.

As you’d expect from an accomplished visual artist, albeit a first time director, McQueen bestows ‘Hunger’ with a unique aesthetic that differentiates it from any previous films about Northern Ireland. It features all the criteria of the accomplished ‘art film’ for sure; long, silent takes, long shots of empty corridors (which often have the urine of the prisoners seeping out from beneath the doors of the cells with unnerving symmetry) and perhaps to the film’s detriment, a split screen of the violence of the riot police and one policeman’s response as he stays out of it; a poignant look of regret. Add this to Lohan’s more-often-than-not desperate isolation from the violence around him, and there’s a risk that McQueen’s chasing easy sympathy, of showing in a much too facile way the horror of those carrying out the violence upon reflection. There’s also the lazy symbolism of birds flying the nest, used twice – an all too obvious metaphor for freedom that’s most prominently used when Sands finally dies. The Christ parallels also sit a little too uneasily; the self-sacrifice and suffering threaten to afford Sands a martyr’s status.

One also wonders whether the emphasis placed upon the film’s aesthetic undermines its already minimal narrative. It’s not an issue that McQueen doesn’t a logical, coherent or chronological narrative as such. ‘Hunger’ comes across more as a tableux of episodes in the lives of these prisoners, none of which are necessarily connected or adjoining. However, it’s quite easy to question what the purpose of ‘Hunger’ is? What do we learn after 90 minutes? That government policy of not respecting or recognising “political prisoners” trickles its way down to the violence unleashed upon them by a partisan police force? Perhaps so, but the episodes of violence, carried out with such force, overwhelm the film so much that any intellectual or ethical considerations, as shown in the remarkable unbroken 17 minute shot between Sands and a priest, almost become consumed by them.

Some have already seen ‘Hunger’ as part of an unofficial wave of new, arthouse British film making, which might include the likes of ‘Unrelated, ‘Better Things’ and the more recent ‘Helen’. There’s little that connects the films thematically or aesthetically, but these are all low-budget films made on their own terms; a refreshing alternative to the box-office chasing films that usually reach our cinemas. ‘Hunger’ is certainly ambitious, certainly audacious, but there are some reservations that cause concern – the over-emphasis upon the film’s look, the over-use of symbolism that doesn’t really work and the overwhelming demonstrations of physical violence that will easily shock and make one recoil with horror. Still, this is the kind of cinema we’ve been crying out for and the kind of cinema we ought to encourage.


May 26, 2009

Red Road (2006)


Director: Andrea Arnold

113 min


Glasgow, the present day. Jackie, a CCTV operator, observes life through a wall of cameras, including a man walking his dog and a woman working in a laundrette. She meets with colleagues in the pub and has fortnightly sex with a married colleague although she doesn’t seem to enjoy it. Jackie attends a relatives wedding but she is distant towards an older couple; the husband remembers Jackie having longer hair. Jackie leaves shortly after. When Jackie notices a woman being pursued by a man, she is about the call the police, fearing a sexual assault. It is a consensual act but Jackie recognises the man involved, who is called Clyde Henderson.

Clyde was sentenced to ten years in jail but has been released for good behaviour. Jackie encourages surveillance at the Red Road flats where Clyde lives. Whilst distracted watching Clyde, a young girl is stabbed on Jackie’s watch. Jackie follows Clyde to a café and then visits a party being held at Clyde’s flat. Clyde thinks they’ve met before but isn’t sure where. Jackie and Clyde dance before she pulls away and leaves. Stevie, who’s staying with Clyde, had stolen Jackie’s purse so she returns to claim it back. Jackie and Clyde make love. In the bathroom, Jackie, who had kept the condom, attempts to smear herself with Clyde’s semen. She then accuses Clyde of rape. Stevie breaks into Jackie’s for an explanation – Clyde killed her husband and daughter. Jackie drops the charges and confronts Clyde, telling him what he’d done to her. They retrace the accident and Jackie makes up with her parents in law.


Produced under the auspices of the Zentropa Studios, ‘Red Road’ is very much Dogme ’95 goes abroad and part of the Advance Party, a trilogy of films set in Scotland that uses the same cast and characters and made by first time directors. The roots of this project might have been in ‘Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself’ (2002), a Scottish-Danish co-production, directed by Lone Scherfig, who was a founding member of the Advance Party. Although some have questioned the credibility of the entire Dogme ’95 agenda, claiming it to be nothing more than a publicity stunt that a rigorous set of criteria for film making, ‘Red Road’ at least reinvigorates the tradition of British arthouse and social realist film making, challenging the current consensus towards lowest common denominator films with an eye on the box office.

‘Red Road’ takes a simple premise; a woman dealing with life after the death of her husband and child and makes the most of it. Arnold’s skill is delaying the full revelation of the facts, gradually letting them slip and teasing the audience with small moments that might or might not be significant. There’s the distant relationship with what turns out to ber her husband’s parents, with whom she barely communicates and from Alfred’s nostalgic memories, we sense this relationship has been troubled for a while. There’s hints about if only they had buried…..someone, but we’re never sure exactly who? Only in the final scenes are we completely aware of Jackie’s past and what her relationship with Clyde is (although the first time we see, or should that be Jackie sees Clyde, we know it’s something important by the flicker of fear and recognition), so we spend most of the film speculating and Arnold ensures that ‘Red Road’ remains a tense and gripping thriller at all times.

There’s a certain deliberate irony in having Jackie’s CCTV operator keep a close eye on the lives of everyone who falls inside her radar yet never being able to keep an eye on her own. Jackie’s life has effectively frozen since her tragedy, demonstrated by the incredibly mechanical sex she has with a colleague. Maybe she’s deliberately compensating for the fact that she’s been unable to move on? Jackie has a voyeur’s eye, aware of the foibles of those she regularly watches over, even trying to intervene when necessary. Although it’s the one time that she really tries to intervene that she’s forced to confront her past – had Clyde’s incident been completely innocuous, it’s possible she would never have noticed him. As soon as she notices Clyde though, the power and responsibility afforded to her as a CCTV operator is exploited to the full, tracking his every movement. Her obsession grows to the extent that she misses a stabbing, from which the girl barely survives.

Much more disturbing is how Jackie behaves when she decides to confront Clyde, using the one resource she genuinely has – her body. Clyde lets her know in no uncertain terms that he desires her and she acquiesces because that’s the sole means she has of getting her revenge. Maybe it’s slightly contrived how the apparently wonderful sex she has with Clyde contrasts with that of her colleague, although maybe it’s meant to be more cathartic than really enjoyable. However, it’s the minutes after they’d made love that are the most alarming of all when Jackie deliberately and methodically attempts to make it look as if Clyde has raped her. Arnold doesn’t shy away from the details, scraping the semen from the condom, inflicting a blow to one’s face to make her accusation look plausible.

The change of tone in the final moments when Jackie confronts Clyde when he’s been released after she dropped the rape charges is welcome and slightly unexpected. We learn more about the incident – a drug-fuelled car crash, but also that Jackie had argued with her family before they left the house for the last time. So it’s less about punishing Clyde then punishing herself for her last moments with her family. After an hour and a half or so of dark, tense film making, this cathartic coda strikes a nice balance as Jackie retraces the accident and makes amends with her parents in law. ‘Red Road’, with its strong performances and largely impressive and expressive cinematography is one of the strongest British features of recent years and hints at Arnold’s rich potential as a film maker, which might have come to fruition at Cannes 2009, with ‘Fish Tank’, which was mostly acclaimed by resident critics.

May 22, 2009

The Documentary and the War on Terror: Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 8:32 pm
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An 800 word feature on any documentary-related topic for my Film Journalism course, this seemed as relevant as anything else.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration reiterated its commitment to fighting the war on terror. The previous seven and a half years have seen regime changes in two middle-Eastern countries but how effective has the war on terror been? Are both the region and the West any safer? The Bush administration has been the most domestically and internationally divisive in recent memory. Such polarised opinion ought to have inspired Hollywood but it’s been much more cautious than you’d imagine. Whether it’s political or financial issues, a reluctance to “rock the boat”, to ask difficult questions, but only a handful of features have emerged; ‘The Kingdom’, ‘In the Valley of Elah’ and ‘Lions for Lambs’ amongst them. All have met tepid critical and commercial responses. The documentary has assumed the mantle Hollywood ought to have taken and there’s been an explosion of documentaries in recent years that have examined the moral issues surrounding American involvement in the Middle East and investigated some of the more disturbing behaviour that’s taken place.

The Academy Award winning ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ might not be the first documentary that has looked into events in the Middle East since the advent of the War on Terror; it’s pre-dated by the likes of Martin Kunert’s ‘Voices of Iraq’ and Michael Tucker’s ‘Gunner Palace’, but it is one of the most significant and potent films in this cycle. A world away from the polemic film-making of Michael Moore, whose presence in his films is as much the story as the genuine story and where facts are happily distorted to restate Moore’s objectives, Gibney’s film is both authoritative and finely balanced. This is not ‘preaching to the converted’ documentary film making aimed at the American liberals who’ve opposed the invasion of Iraq from day one. This documentary, just like those mentioned above, is about revealing the truth. We read every day about the latest atrocity in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet from our comfortable distance, it never really hits home. ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ pulls no punches with its willingness to tell all and to shock.

Unlike Moore, Morgan Spurlock and other documentary film makers who’ve pursued a clear agenda in their work, which has been dubbed docu-ganda by its critics, most of the documentaries about Iraq are dedicated to objectivity, of telling the facts straight and leaving the viewer to make up his/her mind. These are informative documentaries, to give us the information that the mainstream press doesn’t report. Gibney uses captions with facts; many of which startle. For instance, only 7% of prisoners were captured by coalition forces. The rest were handed over by warlords and mercenaries, handsomely remunerated for their work. It’s what gives these documentaries the credibility that docu-ganda film makers lack; this is old-school investigative film making.

Gibney begins with a small incident, the kind of incident that occurs almost everyday – the death of an innocent Afghan detainee. He interviews American soldiers implicated in his death, who accept what they’ve done with great remorse but who’ve since been abandoned by the military, who’ve described them as a few bad apples whilst believing that the wider policy of the War on Terror works. Around this incident, he looks at the policy, from the implicit promotion of torture by both politicians and the upper reaches of the military, the rejection of domestic and international law by the Bush administration and the general ineffectiveness of the policy in eradicating terrorism. What emerges from the documentary should even shock the most die-hard Republican.

Ask anyone what they envisage about the treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan and it’ll be those iconic photographs at Abu Ghraib. A chilling fact that emerges from Gibney’s documentary is that the soldier who oversaw this mistreatment actually now is involved in interrogation treatment for the entire US military. It’s just one instance of how the lessons that need to be learned from the mistakes haven’t been taken on board. The torture issue is at the heart of the documentary. The Bush administration had a fast and loose definition of torture, tailoring it to whatever they felt acceptable. Donald Rumsfeld himself sent memos authorising its use. Domestic and international law was trampled upon as it had been by dictators across history.

Fox television series ‘24’ has made torture palatable to the American public with its ludicrous plot scenarios and the main concern is that its 12 million viewers and wide press coverage will sanitise torture, by citing issues about national security to prey on the fears of the American public. Documentaries like Gibney’s are competing on an unfair playing field and can’t hope to achieve anything like the saturation of ‘24’; a shame since ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ shows the real facts about torture – how it’s been used on the completely innocent and the inhumane methods that would make Amnesty International wince. Just one of the recent cycle of documentaries on the War on Terror, ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ is one of the most important of our time. In a nation where voicing any dissent faces accusations of treason and disloyalty, this should be mandatory viewing.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 6:20 pm
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Director: Fred Schepisi

120 min


New South Wales, Australia, the turn of the twentieth century. Jimmie Blacksmith, a half Aboriginal young man is raised by a white preacher and his wife. After hunting with some Aborigines, he’s whipped for his disobedience. Jimmie, now old enough to make his own way, finds a job as a labourer on a farm owned by the Healy’s, building fences. He is underpaid, disrespected and punched by his boss when he infers he’s illiterate. Jimmie has a brief romance with Gilda, a white serving girl, whom Jimmie marries when she discovers she’s pregnant. The child is born white but Jimmie accepts it as his own and stays with Gilda.

Jimmie’s new employers, the Newby’s, encourage Gilda to leave Jimmie and stay with them. She refuses. Jimmie is sacked when his Aboriginal friends set up camp on Newby’s land. Jimmie ‘declares war’, originally intending to frighten Newby’s family, but begins a massacre, killing his wife and daughters. Jimmie and Mort, his half-brother, then go on the run, abandoning Gilda and their child. Jimmie commits revenge against all those who wronged him, including the Healy’s. Jimmie’s uncle is tried for his participation in one of the murders. Jimmie and Mort kidnap a schoolteacher and take him hostage. Mort later takes him to safety and is killed. After Jimmie is wounded, he takes refuge at a convent, but is caught and constantly beaten as he is taken away semi-conscious.


Suddenly, as if from nowhere, Australian cinema exploded in the late 1970s, because of a combination of increased public subsidies in the arts and the emergence of a new generation of a gifted actors and directors, all of whom made an international reputation for themselves. Films like ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (Peter Weir), ‘Breaker Morant’ (Bruce Beresford) and ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ were critically acclaimed across the world and all tackled Australia’s heritage and history, but perhaps no Australian film of the era was quite so introspective in terms of examining Australia’s chequered and controversial past.

In recent years, there has been greater awareness of and contrition about the treatment of the indigenous population in Australia. The recent ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ (2002) examined the plight of the “stolen generation” – Aboriginal children removed from their families because of a state policy that can only be described as eugenics and reducing the Aboriginal population. As a caption informs, 270 000 Aborigines were killed by white settlers – they stole a country and destroyed a culture. ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ entered this territory some twenty-five years before, when it was much more of a taboo subject.

Schepisi pulls no punches with his portrayal of white society, which is either stern and patronising (the preacher and his wife) or just overtly prejudiced (the various employers Jimmie works for). The latter seem to be playing to type, but it’s the former who are the far more interesting and one wonders whether Schepisi thinks that the intellectuals, like the preacher and the schoolteacher are those who are seriously undermining opportunities for Jimmie and others than the boorish, uneducated whites who spout racially-motivated obscenities. It’s these educated elites who are pursuing a systematic policy of wiping out the indigenous populations by taking Jimmie away from his natural environment and forcing him to integrate into a society he patently doesn’t belong to. The preacher whips Jimmie for associating with his Aboriginal friends and chastises him for having no ambition and being needed for higher things – pairing off with a white woman and reducing his caste over several generations for one.

Yet Schepisi is aware of the futility of the exercise. Jimmie can never be fully integrated into a white society as the likes of the Healy and Newby will always be there, prejudiced until the end, unwilling to treat Jimmie as an equal. At the same time, Jimmie will never be fully accepted into Aboriginal society. There’s one key scene where Jimmie assists the police to find an Aborigine who’s accused of killing a white boy. He even assaults the accused with some venom. This demonstrates how keen Jimmie is to become part of this white society, yet the colour of his skin will always hold him back. It’s the attempts to navigate and compromise between two radically different cultures that becomes Jimmie’s undoing and eventually compels him to unleash a wave of violence. Watch how Jimmie performs a native Aboriginal dance before the birth of his child and how his anticipation is cruelly mocked by the child being born white, clearly not his. Although he doesn’t blame his loyal wife, it’s the final insult – the child could have aided his integration but instead it makes it further impossible.

Also intriguing is how the film defies the rest of the themes of the nascent Australian new wave of film making. The likes of ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘Breaker Morant’ contributed to a wider project of myth-making about Australian history; patriotic and proud. Schepisi reveals turn of the century Australia, on the verge of becoming the confederation and therefore a united country, to be a very different place whatsoever to what Weir et al would have you believe. ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ was based on real events that took place; not just the eugenics policy but the violence that was unleashed by festering resentment. Only recently has discussing the subject been acceptable. The new Australian Prime Minister publicly apologises for the treatment of the indigenous populations in the past. Watching ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ is undoubtedly a chastening experience; difficult but an incredibly frank look of a country’s shame.

May 18, 2009

Blue Eyelids (2007)


Director: Ernesto Contreras

98 min


Mexico, the present day. Marina, a woman in her thirties works a Lulita’s Fashions, a clothing company. Lulita, the owner awards a ten day beach holiday for two to whichever employee a bird chooses at random – it chooses Marina. Lulita advises her not to let any chance of happiness pass her by. Marina asks her sister, Lucia, to accompany her, which she agrees to. Shortly later, she asks Lucia to let her and her husband use the holiday to repair their deteriorating marriage. Marina refuses. The holiday is non-transferable.

In a café, Marina is approached by Victor, who claims he knew her at school. She doesn’t remember him but Victor asks her to keep in touch. Days later, Marina calls Victor and asks whether he would accompany her on the holiday. They share dates; a picnic, to the cinema and dancing. Victor agrees to collect Marina on the day of the holiday. When he arrives at her apartment, she isn’t there. Marina sends him a postcard, explaining that she’s a fool and she hopes he’ll meet her at the station when she returns. He tears up the postcard but still meets her. Victor proposes marriage and Marina accepts.


A debut feature by Ernesto Contreras, who’s cut his teeth with several documentaries over the past decade, ‘Blue Eyelids’ is a touching and unconventional look at two lonely souls searching for and perhaps finding love. The pace is slow and subtle and Contreras rejects the norms of the genre. Just consider for a second what would Hollywood do with this premise. Choose two attractive leads and try to make us believe that they’re misfits, unable to find a soul-mate. Then of course, they’d be perfect for each other, maybe deal with some obstacles that would need to be overcome, but by the film’s resolution, they’d show society and live happily ever after.

Such an approach just wouldn’t convince. Cecilia Suarez (Marina) and Enrique Arreola (Victor) are believable in their moulds and it’s certainly possibly to understand how they might be cut adrift and alone. Victor mentions how he’s managed to lose contact with his friends over the years and his constant memories of school and the classmates he knew is a poignant combination of nostalgia and regret. Marina is less inclined to think about her schooldays for whatever reason. She clearly doesn’t remember Victor despite one incredibly transparent lie that Victor easily picks up on. Marina has a relationship with her sister that we imagine isn’t so close and her sister’s insecurities, including one assertion that Marina might want to see her marriage fall apart, seem to drive a wedge between them. Besides the one scene where Lucia asks Marina to forsake the holiday, we only ever see our two protagonists alone or with each other. These are two people who don’t find human contact especially easy.

Contreras astutely gives the impression that Marina and Victor live parallel lives; he shows them simultaneously showering, working and masturbating, cutting between them both doing so. However, he doesn’t really give the impression that they’re a potential couple that could bring each other out of their shell. Indeed, when they go on dates together, little changes. We watch with an acute sense of embarrassment as they repeat conversations they’ve had; inevitably small-talk or school memories, sit awkwardly in silence and most ungracefully of all, make love. Even Victor’s marriage proposal, which occurs when his car breaks down after the engine floods, almost seems cruelly comic. Contreras is keen to point out that this isn’t a natural relationship. Marina and Victor have been brought together by circumstances and a degree of fate. Even when a date goes flat, Marina will turn the conversation around to the holiday. This is the sole thing that pulls them together. Without it, would they even have lasted this far? Even after Victor proposes, we’re not even that confident about the future for this couple, whether they’re capable of making each other happy. Both look entirely uncomfortable and uncertain in the company of the other. In many ways, they’re a more ordinary, much less glamourous Mexican equivalent of Delon and Vitti in Antonioni’s ‘L’Eclisse’, where love is unobtainable and impossible.

Although Contreras is a first time film maker, his apprenticeship with numerous shorts has given him the confidence to make ‘Blue Eyelids’ a visually interesting film. He begins with a simple right to left tracking shot of the company where Marina works, uses zooms until they become close ups upon both Marina and Victor when they meet on dates (which seems the stuff of cliché really but it just about works), some nice overhead shots whenever Victor arrives at Marina’s apartment (twice), but otherwise relies on an approach of static shooting methods. Given that his film is an almost kitchen-sink style romantic drama, there’s no reason for Contreras to be overly flamboyant with his direction. The recurring use of Ray Davies’ ‘Strange Effect’ can be a little grating after a while, but there’s no doubting it’s an effective choice of song, with its use presumably ironic. The metaphor of the caged bird that gives Marina her chance of happiness, by awarding her the holiday, seems a little obvious too, but that’s no problem.

A mature, melancholic drama about love and its complications, ‘Blue Eyelids’ is a thought-provoking diversion from formula, similar to James Gray’s ‘Two Lovers’ in its serious and empathetic tone and attitude towards its central protagonists. Because of this, and also the recurring inertia, the film doesn’t feel like its takes flight or really goes in any meaningful direction. Certainly the viewer requires a degree of patience and the capacity to withstand certain awkward behaviour to really engage with Marina and Victor but persevere and there’s enough to admire. ‘Blue Eyelids’ hints at the potential of the Contreras siblings who write and direct, but their first collaboration is mostly uneven but worth picking out nevertheless.

May 14, 2009

Sonatine (1993)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:37 pm
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Director: Takeshi Kitano

94 min


Tokyo, the 1990s. Murakawa is a jaded yakuza, tired of a life of crime he’s been part of too long. He’s sent to settle a feud between two rival crime syndicates. However, both sides claim their dispute is only minor and not important enough for him to have been sent to intervene. Murakawa’s headquarters are bombed, whilst he and his colleagues are attacked one night in a bar. Forced into hiding, the gang occupy themselves with trivial games that eventually become more serious when Murakawa challenges his colleagues to a game of Russian roulette, although the game is fixed and no-one is harmed.

Murakawa witnesses an attempted rape and kills the man involved. The woman involved decides to stay with Murakawa and his gang. When an assassin kills one of his associates, Murakawa kidnaps a rival gang member in retribution. After a violent shootout, the sole survivors are Murakawa and Takahashi, who he kidnapped. Takahashi tells Murakawa why he was set up; that his bosses wanted to merge with another syndicate and that Murakawa, whose patch was to be traded with, had to be eliminated. After killing Takahashi, Murakawa makes his journey back to the woman who promised to wait for him, En route, he stops the car and commits suicide, shooting himself in the head.


A peculiar, off-beat crime film, ‘Sonatine’ marked the start of a fertile and mature period of film making by Takeshi Kitano. Although Kitano had cut his teeth as a film maker with ‘Violent Cop’ (1989) and ‘Boiling Point’ (1990), he was still best known in his native Japan as a comic actor and television host. His earlier films were genre efforts that strongly adhered to the conventions of the crime film. With ‘Sonatine’, Kitano completely rewrote his own rules. A sombre and reflective film whose protagonist, played by Kitano, is a jaded criminal looking for a way out, it’s more influenced by more European cinematic approaches than Japanese cinema. Murakawa’s existential dread consciously or otherwise recalls Jef Costello in ‘Le Samourai’ (1967). Kitano would later win the Golden Lion at Venice for ‘Hana Bi’ (1997), a film that has parallels with ‘Sonatine’ and without the latter, probably wouldn’t have been made.

The world that the Yakuza operates in seems if not unglamourous, then just downright dull. The early meetings between Murakawa and his bosses resemble high-powered business meetings; it’s all very civilised and polite. However, Kitano makes us fully aware of what these men do for a living and how they succeed, which he often does so by cutting between the superficial respectability and the violent reality. Take one formal dining scene where everything seems normal, but Kitano cuts to a scene of great violence in the restaurant’s bathroom as Murakawa delivers a harsh beating.

The sudden bursts of violence come out of nowhere. Murakawa and others like him have become completely desensitised to the violence that surrounds them. One scene, filmed incredibly slowly and methodically, confirms how these men have lost any sense of empathy and how the consequences of their violence no longer affect them. A man who’s failed to make his payments is lifted from a crane, then immersed head first into a river. They discuss how long he might last; two or three minutes perhaps? In less than two minutes, he’s drowned. Murakawa’s response? “We’ve killed him…..but nevermind”. Their attitudes towards violence and death are so matter-of-fact that it’s chilling. Murakawa, in particular, is so jaded by his lifestyle that he know longer knows how to feel, that what he does for a living fails to register. Even when he’s taken revenge on those who’ve wronged him, his only course of action seems initially strange but ultimately logical. He chooses the only possible way out.

Whilst ‘Sonatine’ might be a reflective look at the gangster genre, what makes it even more memorable is the nice use of surreal touches that permeate the film. During the imposed hiding of Murakawa and his gang, they spend their vast amount of time attempting to stave off boredom the only way they know how; playing “rock, paper, scissors” and making a sumo wrestling game out of cardboard figures, which they later replicate for real, with each of them standing in for the figures. One visual flourish of some brilliance begins with the ominous figure of a man with a straw hat, whose tosses a handful of petals above his head, which Kitano then merges with a frisbee being thrown by Murakawa’s gang. Whilst aspects of the games that these criminals play to occupy themselves might seem trivial, there’s always the threat of violence being around the corner.  Murakawa ups the ante on his gang by challenging them to a game of Russian roulette, which is rigged but Murakawa’s subsequent dream where the game is repeated with himself shooting himself (a premonition of what’s to come?) confirms that whilst these criminals can step outside of their world of crime but they can’t fully reject or leave it.

Kitano shoots his gangster film like no other. This world of boredom is characterised by long shots, tracking shots across provincial beaches and scenes shot in hopeless silences. Kitano completely rejects the conventions of the gangster film from across the water in Hong Kong, as exemplified by the balletic, choreographed violence of John Woo’s films. ‘Sonatine’ is much more grounded, almost deliberately banal. This is a world of crime lacking in excitement, suffused by boredom, but with violence the only constant there is. Kitano’s directorial career has flourished since; ‘Hana Bi’ and ‘Zatoichi’ have received rich amounts of critical acclaim, but this is where it began for Kitano. ‘Sonatine’ is a unique experience, a unique vision of the gangster film. Its leisurely pace and futile atmosphere ensure that it makes many demands of the viewer but its idiosyncracies and originality make up for it.

‘Sonatine’ was released on DVD on 11 May by Second Sight Films

May 7, 2009

The Apple (1998)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 2:12 pm
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Director: Samira Makhmalbaf

86 min


Tehran, the late 1990s. Concerned neighbours write to the city welfare department about two parents, an unemployed father and a blind mother, who keep their twin 12 year old daughters locked up. They are never allowed out, can’t speak and haven’t bathed in years. A welfare officer visits; the parents fear they will harm the children. The children are interviewed and find it difficult to communicate and behave. The welfare officer seeks to integrate the children into society.

The children are returned to their parents on the condition that they look after them properly. The father, a religiously zealous man, tells a neighbour that he has been slandered in the press; that he never chained his children up and that God won’t forgive them for interfering. When the welfare officer returns, the father is not home and the children are still locked up. With a neighbour’s help, she releases the children. When the father returns, the officer encourages the children to play outside and make friends. The officer locks the parents inside their home as punishment. The children make friends with two neighbourhood girls and walk around the city. When they return, they release their parents. The father takes the children to buy a watch, whilst the mother wonders where they all are.


“A girl is like a flower. If the Sun shines on her, she will fade”

The daughter of the much admired post-revolutionary director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira was just seventeen when she directed her debut feature, ‘The Apple’, having already served an extensive apprenticeship. Although her father, co-scripted and edited the film, it’s still an astonishing debut feature by any standards, not just when you bear in mind the age of the director.

Much like several films of the era; Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s ‘A Moment of Innocence’ and Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Close Up’, to name two examples, ‘The Apple’ is a fascinating combination of documentary and fiction techniques. Makhmalbaf has taken a real life incident that received widespread press coverage and immediately recreated it when the personnel involved, just as had been the case in the two aforementioned examples. It’s probable that Makhmalbaf has used a degree of dramatic license, but largely she’s faithful to the actual incident and respectful to those involved, providing them the opportunities to state their case and do themselves justice. As this is a re-enactment staged for the camera, there’s a constant blur between fact and fiction, between what’s genuine and what’s an act, although given the fact that Makhmalbaf uses the real parents and children involved, you’d have to assume that they’re being completely honest, rather than trying to give a false and better impression of themselves.

An incident that caused a scandal in the press, Makhmalbaf is sufficiently canny to use it to make numerous observations about Iranian society. The neglect and mistreatment of these two young girls acts as a metaphor for the female experience in a historically patriarchal state. The father, unemployed with a blind wife, uses religious as his comfort, but also his justification for how he looks after his children. Although the religious quotation that starts this review might sound well-meaning, it actually encourages the subjugation of women. He refuses to allow his daughters to roam the streets in case anyone (read: boys) touches them, which would result in them being dishonoured.

Honour is a recurring theme throughout ‘The Apple’. Whilst the father might be concerned about his daughters becoming dishonoured, it appears as though his main worry is that he is not dishonoured. Rather than focus on whether his treatment of his children was fair or not (and he’s able to justify it to himself easily enough), the father concentrates more on whether the press have represented him fairly or not. When they report that he has locked his daughters up, he is dishonoured, yet we can pretty much observe that this is what’s happened. He’s merely arguing over the finer details. Makhmalbaf doesn’t take the press coverage as reflecting an open and shut case. She provides the father with an opportunity to speak and to try to explain his reasoning. Whilst she doesn’t allow the father to become an object of sympathy, he’s quite a pitiful figure in fact, her access to the family, who are never exploited, is crucial in seeking to understand what actually occurred in this incident.

As has been the case in previous Mohsen Makhmalbaf films, there’s a distinct influence of the French New Wave in ‘The Apple’, which has obviously passed its way down to his daughter. The concept of a feral child/children, unable to communicate or behave and yet to be integrated into society was explored in Truffaut’s ‘The Wild Child’. In Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s ‘A Moment of Innocence’, the freeze-frame final shot of the bread and flower, was a tribute to Truffaut’s ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’. The same technique is used in the final sequence of ‘The Apple’. As the blind mother runs into the street, wondering where her husband and children are, a neighbourhood boy dangles an apple around her face (which of course she can’t see). Makhmalbaf freezes the frame as the mother catches the apple.

Much as the bread and flower in her father’s film acted as a symbol of rehabilitation and forgiveness, the apple itself, the recurring motif that so fascinates the two children, acts as a symbol of knowledge or the pursuit of knowledge. These girls follow a young boy who hangs an apple from his head. They’re curious and want to know more about the outside world. When they first return from playing outside, they mark the wall of their room with images they’ve seen, making flowers from handprints. Their minds have been closed off to new experiences but now they have a thirst for knowledge. It’s a sign that it shouldn’t be possible for these girls to return to the lives they had.

Whilst it’s possible that Makhmalbaf doesn’t delve deeper into the strange logic that encouraged the father to more or less imprison his children for 12 years, the film makes a decent fist of doing so, whilst relating it directly to the experience of women in Iran as a whole. It’s perhaps the only minor quibble about this extraordinary, always fascinating debut feature. Combining aspects of both documentary and fiction film making, it allows the family to make their case, whilst also presenting the circumstances as the neighbourhood observe them too. Makhmalbaf is completely objective; there’s no bias, no obvious sympathy with the husband, just a more or less straight retelling of facts. The paradox remains, however, given that ‘The Apple’ is a film that partly reflects upon the discrimination women face in a patriarchal society, why is Iran by some margin the most welcoming national cinema for female directors?

May 5, 2009

Helen (2008)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:13 pm
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Directors: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy

79 min


The UK, the present day. A group of friends walk in the park. One, Joy, breaks from the group, passing a number of people before entering the woods. Cut to police investigating the scene of a crime. Joy’s parents visit the police station to identify the items found at the scene. A televised reconstruction is planned to jog the public’s memories. P.C. Saville visits Joy’s school to request any assistance. Helen, a girl in Joy’s class, auditions for the reconstruction and is asked whether she would act as Joy. Helen lives in a care home and works as a hotel chambermaid, befriended only by her Estonian colleague.

Helen runs through Joy’s final known steps, mentored by P.C. Saville. Helen meets Joy’s parents, who recognise the visual resemblance between Helen and their daughter, and they offer to help Helen in any way they can. Helen meets Joy’s boyfriend, Danny, an estate agent. Now 18, Helen refuses access to her personal files. Whilst visiting Joy’s parents, she takes a photograph of Joy as a child with her parents, which she later shows to Danny. Helen asks Danny to tell her he loves her so she knows how it feels. At dinner with Joy’s parents, Joy’s father breaks down. Helen finally requests access to her personal files.


An intriguing but ultimately imperfect film about reinvention and assuming a fresh identity, the origins of ‘Helen’, made by the production company, Desperate Optimists (formed by the two directors), were the short ‘Joy’ (also 2008). Only nine minutes in length, the bare bones of the premise remain intact, which has been fleshed out in greater detail for this full length version. Changing the title from the name of one protagonist to another is crucial, however, completely shifting the emphasis of the film. For the short, the stress was upon Joy, the missing girl. Here, it’s upon Helen, the young girl, who is asked to impersonate Joy for a police reconstruction.

The major strength of the film is how it examines the consequences of asking one person to impersonate the other. For Joy’s family, who take on Helen almost as a surrogate daughter, it’s a means of suspending their grief, to make themselves believe that nothing has changed and that their daughter is still with them. The early scene where Joy’s mother smells Joy’s yellow jacket is cut back to later when Joy’s mother embraces Helen. Both scenes serve the same purpose, to recall memories of their missing daughter. When Helen visits Joy’s parents for dinner, the scene plays out how dinner genuinely would have occurred at the home, although the careful façade is cracked when Joy’s father breaks down in tears, in full acknowledgement that however he and his wife make themselves believe Helen is Joy, it just won’t work.

Impersonating Joy provides Helen with opportunities she’s herself never enjoyed. Living in care homes for as long as she can remember and working part-time as a hotel chambermaid, this quiet, unambitious, struggling young girl is the complete antithesis of Joy, who by all accounts was outgoing, popular and academically successful. Helen has the chance to step into Joy’s shoes, to live her life and to escape her own. The advantages of which are none too subtly pointed out when an Estonian colleague explains why she moved to the UK, “to start over again, reinvent myself”. Helen absorbs aspects of Joy’s personality and life; her resemblance moves beyond just wearing her luminous yellow jacket. She even strikes up a tentative relationship with Joy’s ex-boyfriend, Danny. When Danny tells Helen he loves her, why does he do this? Is it because Helen wants to know what those words feel like or did Danny indeed love Joy, despite his uncertainty when asked about it previously. Perhaps still, he senses something between himself and Joy. One possibility never explored, perhaps because Joy’s disappearance is ultimately a MacGuffin, is what would happen if Joy was found alive and well? What would become of Helen then? This is a plot development too far for the directors, but within the framework of the narrative, they ask a number of salient questions about the nature of identity.

The main shortcomings identified with the film already in previous reviews are a curious approach to acting and dialogue. Much like with the casting process for the reconstruction, the directors sought non-professional locals to participate in their film and take the parts of the main protagonists. The cast, on the whole, are fine. Annie Townsend creates a quiet, blank canvass for Helen, so that she’s ready to step into Joy’s shoes. Yet the acting on the whole is oddly stilted, delivered without feeling, almost deliberately detached, as if this was the effect that the directors wanted. What this doesn’t necessarily explain though is the shocking dialogue that these characters are expected to converse with.

Presumably the screenplay for ‘Helen’ is completely improvised – characters were informed what ought to happen in a scene and then they’d invent the dialogue, which for non-professionals might not be that simple. If that’s the case, then it certainly shows because some of the dialogue is exceptionally wretched, existing purely because the directors think that it ought to. Take one scene when Helen visits Joy’s parents for dinner, and Joy’s father helps her with her maths homework for explaining an incredibly complicated algebraic equation. How convenient! That’s just one instance of how false the dialogue feels, but again, perhaps that’s what the directors are looking for, but it doesn’t convince. Given that ‘Helen’ is a slow-burning, meandering film whose strengths lie in its ability to create a vivid mood and atmosphere, dialogue could have been kept to its bare essentials.

The influence of Antonioni hangs prominently over the film. The mystery in the park, never resolved, reminds one of ‘Blow Up’ and the extended evening shot of a lonely skyline looks as though it might have been lifted from the devastating final sequence of ‘L’Eclisse’. The general detachment of the characters and their inability to meaningfully communicate with each other is pure Antonioni. The directors provide numerous visual flourishes, from the opening slow-motion sequence that hints at something about to go wrong to the long shot of Helen retracing Joy’s steps before closing with a direct overhead shot. There’s plenty Lawlor and Molloy impress with, yet the entire credibility of their film is almost sunk by acting and dialogue that feels amateurish and might alienate an audience. ‘Helen’ hints at better things for the directors, but the overall effect, is a beautiful, if rather confusing mess.

May 1, 2009

Charulata (1964)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 7:29 pm
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Director: Satyajit Ray

117 min


Calcutta, the 1870s. A housewife, Charu, lives a secluded, unoccupied life of leisure. Her husband, Bhupati, runs an English language newspaper, The Sentinel and devotes more time to this than his increasingly lonely wife, although Charu doesn’t complain, recognising how well he provides for them both. Concerned that she is lonely, Bhupati invites his cousin, Amal, to visit and to keep Charu company. The Sentinel struggles with sales but Bhupati refuses to compromise the integrity of the newspaper by engaging in gossip and scandal.

Amal, an aspiring writer, enjoys Charu’s company, and encourages her own writing, although they agree not to publish hers. As they spend more time together, Charu develops tender feelings for Amal. He is offered a proposal of marriage from a good family and Bhupati encourages him to accept as it would allow him to receive an education in Europe. Amal leaves, causing Charu great upset and discomfort. Bhupati learns that a colleague has borrowed money against his name and absconded, risking the future of The Sentinel. Bhupati realises that he has neglected Charu for too long and seeks to change. During a storm, Charu breaks down in tears, asking why Amal had to leave? Bhupati thinks he has lost his wife but she beckons him back; they are reunited.


“I told you not to push”

The pivotal exchange in Ray’s moving melodrama, the Silver Bear winning film at the 1964 Berlin Film Festival. Charu screams these words in frustration in a case of mistaken identity, confusing the man with whom she’s fallen in love with her husband. Until this point, her husband had provided a life of great wealth but had neglected the needs of his wife. Only at this crucial moment does he realise what he might have lost and what he must regain.

The eminently gifted Ray, who not only wrote and directed ‘Charulata’ but also provided the hypnotic score that was appropriated by Wes Anderson for his recent ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ made an immediate impression with the Apu Trilogy in the mid to late 1950s, but many of his most ardent admirers discuss several of the following films with just as much appreciation. ‘Charulata’ is rightly considered one of his finest; a melodrama that respects its source, Rabindranath Tagore’s (who you might recall as one of the names mentioned in the memory game in Ray’s later ‘Days and Nights in the Forest’) novella, but is never overcome by it. Ray uses it as the basis of an examination of complex human emotions and relationships.

Although it’s a three hander with a woman torn between two men, it’s not a classic film about emotional betrayal. There’s no act of adultery. We’re unsure of the extent to which Charu’s feelings are even reciprocated. The emotional dynamic of the relationship between her and Amal that develops is more or less shown entirely from her perspective, captured in one specific moment, when she uses her opera glasses to zoom in on Amal as he sits on a swing. At this moment, she knows how she feels and how irretrievable the circumstances are.

The three protagonists are considerately drawn out. They act compassionately and with the best intentions but can’t always appreciate what the consequences of their actions are. Bhupati is a loving, if neglectful husband whose desire to make a success of his English language newspaper becomes a major preoccupation for him. Crucially during the early scenes of the film, he walks by her twice without noticing, yet it’s not a deliberate snub, but it reveals his complacency. Bhupati notices her loneliness, which is why he asks for Amal to visit, to keep her company. Had Charu, who never once complains about this, said something then perhaps he might not have been so distracted, but his myopia is to an extent understandable.

Amal, on the other hand, probably fails to realise the effect he’s having on Charu. A young and handsome man, quite the antithesis of her husband, who encourages her writing, it’s natural she’d respond favourably. Perhaps he doesn’t overtly encourage her romantic feelings but neither does he sense the potential consequences of their closeness, nor does he really understand what the impact of his departure might mean for her. Despite the complex emotional turmoil that develops from the unforseen actions of the three main protagonists, Ray is reluctant to attach blame or question their motives. His method of characterisation is subtle, as if the shift in the dynamic in the relationships between the three. It’s never built up to seismic levels, just something that naturally develops and feels right and believable.

‘Charulata’ was one of the first Ray films to demonstrate the obvious influence of Western cinema. Never was this more overt in the final sequence, which acts as a homage to ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’. As Bhupati and Charu are reunited, their hands touch, more or less the first act of intimate contact we’ve noticed between them, before Ray closes with a freeze-frame. It points to an uncertain future, where perhaps neither Bhupati nor Charu know exactly where they’ll go from here, but their marriage remains intact and there’s work to be done.

Yet Ray uses his own inspired methods of storytelling. The opening scenes pass by almost without dialogue, which would be superflouous since the images Ray presents and the mood he creates tell us everything. Ray’s camera pursues Charu as we observe her life of leisure but ultimately boredom. Charu watches the world with great curiosity through her opera glasses, indicating the distance between herself and what’s outside the virtual prison of her opulent mansion. The use of storms within the film seems like an obvious metaphor to capture the emotional state of Charu at the time and the difficulty of untangling the knots the characters find themselves in, but it’s not a lazy one. Ray himself described this as his favourite of all his films, the most perfectly realised project he ever embarked upon. It’s difficult to disagree with him in many ways. ‘Charulata’ is the work of a mature film maker, comfortable with the emotions he’s working with, sensitive to his protagonists and his source material.

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