September 28, 2009

A couple of Satyajit Ray DVD releases

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:00 pm


Only in the last couple of years or so have the films of the renowned Indian film maker Satyajit Ray (considered the favourite director of Akira Kurosawa no less) become increasingly available in the UK. His justly acclaimed first set of features, ‘The Apu Trilogy’ have been widely obtainable, but his comparatively lesser known masterpieces have been released by Artificial Eye in various collections, including the likes of ‘Charulata’ (1964) and ‘Nayak’ (1966) in the last year or two. The fledgling Mr Bongo label has now jumped on board. Having already released ‘The Adversary’ (1972), two more Ray films are released in September; ‘Devi’ (1960) and ‘Two Daughters’ (1961).

Both films have a pivotal position in Ray’s career, as the first films he directed after the Apu trilogy (although 1958’s ‘The Music Room’ bridges the trilogy’s second and third parts). Rather than exploit the success of the Apu films, Ray completely changed direction with ‘Devi’, which tackles issues of superstition and religious obsession within the context of a tight-knit community that operates according to a hierarchical structure (potentially an allegory for the rapidly changing India?). Featuring the two actors whom Ray worked with most frequently; his alter-ego Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore (the 14 year old future star of Hindi cinema and great grand-daughter of Rabindranath Tagore – Ray’s favourite Indian writer), it’s a melodrama of the highest order. When the elderly, infirm village elder Kalinkar, the most influential member of the village begins to believe his son’s wife, Doya, (Tagore) is the reincarnation of a Hindi deity, Kali, everyone comes to believe it to be the case, including Doya herself. Inevitably tragedy strikes, ultimately destroying this particular family. Ray’s level of empathy is impressive. He warns of the dangers of such fanaticism, but he does so with great subtlety, never condemning his protagonists for how they act. They are blinded by faith.

‘Two Daughters’ is a minor film in comparison but still showcases Ray’s considerable talents. Comprised of two short stories by Rabindranath Tagore, the underlying theme is of female emancipation. In the first tale, ‘The Postman’, the eponymous character moves from the city to a rural village, where he befriends a young female orphan. He teaches her to read and write; she nurses him after a bout of malaria. Only once he leaves does he recognise the bond between them both. The second tale, The Conclusion’ features Soumitra Chatterjee as a law student who rejects his intended arranged marriage to wed a tomboy instead and the complications that arise from this. Whilst Ray ensures he pays homage to Tagore’s original text, he also makes sure he doesn’t suffocate the film by being over-reverential. Both tales are tributes to rural life in India, by showing how the dynamics of villages change after the introduction of outsiders and comparing the differences between both urban and rural living. The humour and satire is gentle but there’s a constantly sharp observation of the plight of women in these societies. As you’d expect, both films are splendidly shot, and serve as further evidence that Ray is one of the finest of all film makers from the second half of the twentieth century.

Both films were released by Mr Bongo films on 21 September 2009.


September 13, 2009

Fish Tank (2009)


Director: Arnold Arnold
124 min


Essex, UK, the present. Mia, a fifteen year old girl lives on a council estate with her feckless mother, Joanne and younger sister, Tyler. Her sole form of self-expression is dance. Mia engages in an argument with some girls on the estate, one of whom she headbutts. Angry, she breaks into a traveller’s site and tries to liberate a chained horse, but is interrupted. One morning, as she dances in the kitchen, she is observed by Connor, the new boyfriend of her mother, to whom Mia is initially hostile, despite Tyler’s friendliness towards him. Connor spends more time at the flat; throwing a party, taking them for a drive – during which he catches a fish with Mia’s help and Connor tends to the wounds Mia suffers in the process.

Mia borrows Connor’s videocamera to audition for a position as dancer at a local club. One evening, when Joanne and Connor return home drunk, Joanne passes out upstairs. Connor asks Mia to show him her audition. They then have sex. The next morning, Connor has left. Mia tracks him down to his home in Tilbury, where he lives with his wife and young daughter, Keira. Connor drives her back to the train station, but she returns, kidnapping Keira whilst she plays in the street. When Keira accidentally falls in the river, Mia rescues her and returns her. Connor then finds Mia and punches her. Mia attends her dance audition, but realising it’s a seedy club, leaves. Mia leaves for Cardiff with Billy, a young man from the traveller’s site.


Perhaps the brightest hope for British cinema currently, Andrea Arnold’s burgeoning career has been synonimised by awards and acclaim at every turn. Her short ‘Wasp’ (2003) won an Oscar, whilst her debut feature ‘Red Road’ (2006), made under the influence of the Dogme ’95 movement won the Jury Prize at Cannes. So the hopes for her latest film, ‘Fish Tank’ were high and she hasn’t disappointed. Like ‘Red Road’, the film received the Jury Prize at Cannes this year, putting Arnold in rare company. ‘Fish Tank’ has already opened to very promising reviews in the British press, though it’s unlikely to crossover into mainstream territory, which is a shame as it’s a very honest, truthful film that shows an insight into a particular social class without resorting to patronising them.

The Essex council estates that bridge the city and the countryside are territory that Arnold knows all too well. ‘Wasp’ covered similar ground, focusing on the efforts of a poor, single mother on an estate to find a new boyfriend/father. This might have been set in Dartford, Arnold’s home town, but it could be anywhere to be honest. Arnold has disagreed with her critics who describe her work as leaning heavily on the grim side of life amongst the socially excluded. She doesn’t view her films this way; that although they’re set in these environments, they’re hardly ‘Nil By Mouth’ territory; that they focus on the lives of her characters as honestly as possible and offer hope. And there are also hints of autobiography here and there. Arnold doesn’t agree that estates are intrinsically depressing places and the film reinforces this.

The casting of Katie Jarvis in the role of Mia has become the stuff of minor cinematic folklore. Arnold’s casting director apparently witnessed her arguing with her boyfriend at Tilbury and recommended her for the part immediately. It’s an inspired decision. Even amongst the professional thesps on show (Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender), Jarvis more than holds her own in this central performance. It’s by some distance the most impressive performance I’ve seen by a young actor. She inhabits Mia so completely that you’d have to imagine that Jarvis and Mia are more or less one in the same. It’s a subtle, nuanced performance, capturing every aspect of Mia’s personality – her anger, her suspicion, her pride, her potential for verbal and physical violence, but also her potential for compassion, demonstrated mostly with her affectionate relationship with the tethered horse. Coming from a family where “I hate you” means the same as “I love you” and where a term of affection is “I’ll kill you last”, it’s no wonder that Mia remains guarded when faced with Connor’s friendly, warm demeanour. Jarvis has since had a child, so let’s hope she returns to acting and she’s some talent.

As the ‘relationship’ between Mia and Connor grows, demonstrated by slightly worrying moments of physical touching and the character’s accentuated breathing (through some neat sound effects work), there’s only one way this is going to go. Arnold allows this to be signposted a mile off. It doesn’t come as any surprise to us when the inevitable occurs. This makes it all the more disturbing of course, because we’ve had time to consider what will take place between Mia and Connor and even when it occurs, it’s extremely difficult to watch. What Arnold, to her credit, doesn’t do is try to explain to justify why Connor acts how he does. Whilst Mia’s family wear their motivations on their sleeve, Connor’s life is shrouded in mystery. Of course we never believe him when his mysterious ‘phone calls and seemingly being kicked out of home are because of his mother. We always suspect he has a family somewhere, but why latch onto Joanne and her family? And why then have sex with Mia? It’s hinted at some jealousy towards her relationship with Billy, the boy from the travellers site. There’s so many questions left unanswered. Connor’s departure sets in motion a peculiar revenge episode, which I’m not sure I found really convincing; from the way Mia was able to kidnap Keira to her seemingly homicidal intent. The positive byproduct of his departure was at least to facilitate a stronger relationship between Mia and Joanne.

Arnold and her regular DoP Robbie Ryan make the most of their settings; from the claustrophobic council estates that provide the film with its title to the evocative, wide-open spaces of the countryside, there’s a real sense of poetry here but never a fetishistic dwelling upon the seamier side of things. The relationship between Mia and Connor is also shot in a hazy, woozy fashion, as if reflective of a young woman’s sexual awakening, capturing the confusion and sensuality perfect. Complimenting the impressive visual work is a rich sense of authenticity and reality from the protagonists and milieu. ‘Fish Tank’ sometimes loses its way in its final third, once Mia discovers Connor’s secret, but on the whole it’s a striking, sympathetic film that largely deserves the reputation it’s acquiring.

September 12, 2009

District 9 (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:43 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

USA/New Zealand
Director: Neill Blomkamp
112 min


In 1982, an alien vessel stops over Johannesburg. The malnourished aliens on board are rescued and soon placed into a government camp named District 9, which quickly becomes a slum. In the present day, Multi National United, a private military contractor starts the process of relocating the “prawns” (as they’re called) to the new District 10, outside of the city. The operation is led by Wikus van der Merwe, the son in the law of the head of MNU, who starts evicting the aliens. At one shack he finds a cylinder that sprays him with an unknown liquid. Wikus falls ill. At this hospital it becomes clear he’s mutating into an alien. MNU take him into custody, intending to experiment on him but he escapes.

Wikus returns to District 9, to the shack of “Christopher”, where he found the cylinder. This liquid was intended to power the dormant vessel. Christopher offers to reverse Wikus’s transformation if he retrieves the cylinder. Wikus attempts to purchase alien weapons from Nigerian gangsters, who want his arm, believing they’ll be able to gain his powers from eating it. Wikus steals weapons, and both he and Christopher break into MNU, retrieving the cylinder. When Christopher tells Wikus he has to return home before turning him back, Wikus knocks him out and attempts to power the vessel himself. The Nigerians hijack MNU when they capture Wikus and Christopher. Christopher’s son activates a powersuit that allows Wikus to save himself against both the Nigerians and MNU. Wikus allows Christopher to return to the vessel and go home. The aliens are moved to District 10, where it’s suggested we see Wikus, fully transformed into a “prawn”.


The debut film from a South African film maker widely known already for his work in advertising (you’ll have seen his Citroen advert with a car that turns into a dancing robot!) came about rather fortuitously. Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, had been impressed by his previous work, including the short ‘Alive in Joburg’ (2005) and had arranged for Blomkamp to work on a film version of the Halo videogame’. When funding collapsed, Blomkamp returned to his earlier short, to turn in into a full length feature. In hindsight, it was a very wise decision. ‘Alive in Joburg’, which can be seen on Youtube is a six minute short that features the rough synopsis of ‘District 9’, but with the freedoms of a two hour running time and a large budget (though nothing like as large as most Hollywood action films – $30m approximately), Blomkamp has been able to tackle serious subject matters, whilst making a film that appeals to a mainstream filmgoing audience.

Blomkamp’s film hasn’t been acclaimed as a particularly inventive action film because of the technical bravura, although how he gets so much of a comparatively tight budget is certainly impressive, but moreover, because of its sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle allusions to South African history and general philosophies about humanity. It doesn’t require the audience to be an expert on apartheid to understand what Blomkamp is probably referring to. Confined to shanty towns, discriminated against, facing prejudice at every corner – we recognise these as symptoms of apartheid. As is the case in an increasing number of “alien”-themed films (Verhoeven’s ‘Starship Troopers’ springs to mind), it’s the “aliens”, not the humans with whom we sympathise. It’s the “aliens” who demonstrate the most obvious “human” characteristics. What humanitarian impulse began the settlement of the aliens in District 9 quickly descended into outright hostility and fearmongering. Sure, we expect politicians and military personnel here to be devious and selfish, but mild mannered bureaucrats like Wikus think nothing of illegally evicting aliens and issuing the use of violence with little motivation.

The transformation of Wikus from human to “prawn”, which seems influenced by Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ (1987), isn’t just a physical metamorphosis, but also a mental and emotional change. From changing from a human, he somehow becomes more human. The effects of his actions as a civil servant become more apparent – he sees the experiments that MNU undertake on “prawns” first hand. He experiences discrimination and prejudice for this first hand – note the rumours peddled about how his change happened (sexual intercourse with a “prawn”). The one significant relationship within the film is between an alien named Christopher Johnson, an intelligent and articulate alien who knows his rights and that the eviction of his community has no legal basis, and his young son, who plot to rescue their species. Compare this at least with the relationship between Wikus and his father in law, Piet Smit, who has nothing but contempt for him, is complicit with his taking into custody and lies to his own daughter about what’s happened to Wikus. Mid-transformation, Wikus recovers his humanity and selflessness, risking his own life to ensure that Christopher and son can return home. Even with the final scene that shows a fully transformed Wikus, who may never return to human state, carving a flower from a can and leaving it on his wife’s doorstep, this never feels cloying or overly sentimental, but poignant and moving.

Not that there aren’t issues with the film. In its final third, it often feels as though Blomkamp realised there was a significant part of the budget left and the film begins to descend into one massive shootout between Wikus/Christopher and the MNU mercenaries, led by the almost psychotic Venter. For a film that wears its anti-discrimination, anti-prejudice credentials firmly on its sleeve, the characterisation of the Nigerian gangsters sails a little close to the wind, as they seem to merely fit crude stereotypes. These are minor quibbles though that shouldn’t detract from the otherwise impressive nature of this film. It’s a superior, intelligent action film, with a fine, nuanced central performance by Sharlto Copley, who actually doesn’t act all that frequently. Blomkamp nicely switches between faux-documentary of Wikus’s attempts to evict the aliens (filmed for state television) and more conventional film making once he begins to change and the CGI overseen by the director and presumably Jackson gives the film its epic feel. After the superb box office returns already in the US and worldwide, a sequel is probably inevitable. Blomkamp ends his film tentatively, on something of an anti-climax that suggests this chapter isn’t closed. With Jackson’s patronage, he ought to keep his feet on the ground and choose his subsequent projects wisely.

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