Monday, 19 December 2011

2011: SOME CINEMATIC HIGHLIGHTS

Before the sun sets on another year and we all say farewell / shit off to 2011, here are some of my film highlights from the last twelve months.



Nietzsche famously witnessed a horse being flogged in the street, which caused him to break down and throw his arms around the beast. He was consequently insane (and mute) for the final ten years of his life. But what the heck happened to that horse?

After this fascinating premise (and a mesmerising opening sequence) not a hell of a lot happens in The Turin Horse. Scores of hot potatoes get eaten by people with bad table manners. It’s very difficult to refute the charge that it’s quite a boring art film, relentlessly nihilistic and completely depressing. But in a year when I found some of the hotly anticipated arthouse giants disappointing, The Turin Horse seemed to have some kind of miserable integrity. Like most Bela Tarr films, there is a hypnotic and dreamlike intensity to the film. And it contains the best horse performance I’ve ever seen.



At a packed preview for this 'fairytale for adults' many audible gasps punctuated the second half of the film and at one point an elderly man declared 'OH JESUS!' in a loud, trembling cry. It was a most irreligious way to spend a Sunday morning.

THOR




I watched Thor in a fleapit cinema beneath the busy streets of the Beyoglu district in Istanbul. Perhaps I was in a heady, happy state of mind brought about by Efes pilsen, shisha pipes and celestial kebabs, but there is a whole lot of fun to be had in the realm of Asgard. It’s essentially Masters of the Universe meets Norse mythology, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and that is exactly as good as it sounds.


BRIDESMAIDS


The film that shits all over the 'women just aren't as funny as men' debate. 



This modern weepy makes inventive use of a Grizzly Bear soundtrack, has painfully intimate performances and an unbearable sex scene in a spaceship-themed hotel room (we've all been there). I also loved the non-linear beginning / end of the relationship structure. If you see this movie with a partner you will probably end up having a massive argument. But will you break up? That's the question.   



Is there anything more horrifying than ballet? No. My best multiplex experience this year. A film that needs big sound so that Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake rattles your organs and makes you feel a little bit sick. 

Kill List sent the willies right up me when I caught it at a disquietingly empty press show with about two other similarly dumbstruck folk in the cinema. I'm sure we all felt quite worried during the film. Best viewed as a state of the nation nightmare, it’s cryptic, jarring and has a really nasty edge. Wake up Jay!

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN


Here comes Lynne Ramsay, riding on a river of red to sneak an arty horror into the cinemas! Probably the best new film I’ve seen this year. Kevin is such a little bastard. 


RE-RELEASES:

Of the many great re-releases out this year these two stunners still have the power to carpet bomb the living shit out of all that stand in their way. Apocalypse Now (1979) is uniquely intense; a horrifying fever dream that builds and builds until no less than Marlon shitting Brando pops out the dark and starts to monologue like a lunatic. Seeing this beautiful restored digital print at the cinema was a big fat Coppola treat. 



Apocalypse Now shares with Taxi Driver (1976) something of a nightmare quality and is, in many ways, the flip-side to the American troops’ experience in Vietnam (alienation abroad versus alienation at home). I hadn’t watched Taxi Driver in years but revisiting it on the big screen was wonderful. It's still completely enthralling. Weird to think that old Marty has had Taxi Driver, The Last WaltzHugo and George Harrison: Living in the Material World (And I Am A Material Girl) all in cinemas this year. He's a prolific old geezer!

So that's the end of my selective 'pictures of the year' list. I missed a lot of films that I really wanted to see and hope will score highly. These include Once Upon a Time in Anatolia by the masterful Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Post Mortem (follow up to the scuzzy, disturbing Tony Manero) and A Separation.

Hope you have a very Happy New Year. I'll be spending lots of time with Final Draft in January and I've just found out I'll be attending the Berlinale Talent Campus in February. I'm looking forward to getting stuck into some German pretzels. Wunderbar!

Let’s all try and survive this Mesoamerican long count calendar apocalypse thing in 2012. Good luck!




Thursday, 24 November 2011

THE END OF THE WORLD IS UBIQUITOS

ENCOUNTERS ROUND-UP
THE END OF CINEMA
KEEP CALM

Bristol: seen from my dwellings on Upper Maudlin Place, the most self-pitying street in the city.
A frenzied backdrop of apocalyptic threats permeates our lives like some incessant montage of disaster, disease, economic meltdown, hellfire, birds falling from the skies, etc. OK, maybe not that last one but you get the picture. The apocalypse is everywhere right now, and seemed to be at the heart of the 17th Encounters International Film Festival. Despite the harbingers of doom, I’ve returned from three days in Bristol feeling strangely enthused about filmmaking. The festival had an air of urgency to it, from provocative panel discussions debating the future of moving image formats (and the fate of independent filmmaking as a result) to what seems to me a major trend in film at the moment: the end of the world. But before I start banging on about the constant reminders of cataclysmic destruction, here are three of my favourite films from the festival.

A GUN FOR GEORGE (dir. Matthew Holness)

Prepare yourself for Terry Fincher, a character as funny, deluded and kinetically verbose as Holness’ most celebrated creation (Garth Merenghi: horror writer / dream weaver). I loved A Gun For George, from its superb credit sequence (paying homage to Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) through pulp fiction author Terry Fincher’s grainy, vengeful fantasies to its unexpectedly poignant end. You can further explore his violent paperback worlds here

LAS PALMAS (dir. Johannes Nyholm)

A baby gets shit-faced in a dingy Las Palmas bar, trashes the joint, collapses a few times and eventually heads off into the sun on a motorbike, smoking a fat cig. It’s as good as it sounds.


PITCH BLACK HEIST (dir. John Maclean)

This bone-dry two-hander is a superb addition to the bank heist cannon. Directed by John Maclean, with smoldering performances from Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham and cinematography by Robbie Ryan (Andrea Arnold’s regular DOP), everything about this film is crisp as a bag of Salt’n’Shake during the mid-morning break at a primary school in the midst of the harsh winter of 1961 when the world was in the cast iron grip of the Cold War and freakish malevolent manchild Cliff Richards was sound-tracking proceedings with aplomb. It wasn’t until the credits rolled on Pitch Black Heist that I realised this was directed by John Maclean, he of Beta Band / The Aliens fame. And lo! I was pleased. See it if you can.


THE END

OK - back to the apocalypse. A recurring theme in many Encounters shorts seemed to deal with humankind’s collective day of reckoning; be it forecasting the end times, literally depicting complete annihilation or retrospectively looking back at our defective race with a teary eye. If there had been any doubt in my mind that we are completely preoccupied with the end times it was crushed when I opened up a newspaper on my seven and a half hour train journey home, only to be greeted by an in-depth two page spread entitled ‘Is the end really nigh?’. Luckily, it was a moderately upbeat article, with such lines as “If we colonise other solar systems, we could survive longer than our sun, perhaps another 100 trillion years, when all stars begin burning out. We might survive even longer if we exploit non-stellar energy sources’. Couple of big ‘ifs’ in there, folks…

Everyone loves a disaster film and by the good grace of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, I’m no exception. But I think that Armageddon is getting a little hackneyed and difficult to do with much originality. Having said that, I’m really looking forward to seeing Michael Shannon freaking out to visions of the end in Take Shelter. But that’s probably got less to do with boring old apocalypse and more to do with the great Shannon chewing up scenes with his very aura and spitting them out of his enormous face.


The doom wasn’t limited to the films at Encounters. Peter Carlton (Warp Films) chaired one of the Brief Exchange symposiums; a series of panel discussions on the future of film entitled Future Encounters. There was some interesting debate about how cinema (as the pseudo-religious ritual of gathering in the dark to watch a flickering image whilst shoveling popcorn into our cake holes) could survive. Carlton’s own view was that we shouldn’t fetishise the cinema experience, instead we need to embrace all formats so they can co-exist. The idea of film being consumed on a variety of different formats was brought into sharp relief for me at the DepicT! Showcase, where my own short screened in the Watershed’s excellent main cinema. The film had been online for a month or so but to see it in the context of the cinema space, bigger than ever before (with an audience and everything!) felt completely different. Part of me screamed out BEHOLD! THIS IS THE WAY TO VIEW FILM, PRAISE THE LORD KINO! but luckily it was just the small voice inside my head that nobody hears, so the audience remained undisturbed and I wasn’t thrown out. I think Carlton is right; we do need to embrace new possibilities in the field but let’s just make sure we hold on to comfy seats in dark rooms with gargantuan screens. And while we’re at it, maybe we could pass a law stating mobile phones must be surrendered on entry and chatty folk shot in the head by master marksmen lining the aisles.

To end this ramble, I leave you with a contribution to the field of apocalyptic cinema that I made as part of the Degrassi… collective two years ago. The film was created for the 2009 48-Hour International Shootout, in which we placed 2nd runner-up from over 60 international entries. So if you watch it, bear in mind that this was written, produced and edited in two days flat (including the composition an original score). Our remit was fairly broad and in the spirit of our collective obsession: make an end of the world film. We decided to go down the path of awkward Brits in denial, struggling to accept the fact that everything is mysteriously disappearing before their very eyes.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

DepicT!

ENCOUNTERS INTERNATIONAL SHORT FILM FESTIVAL
JOHN K.
RALPH BAKSHI

I'm heading down to Encounters International Short Film Festival this week, where I have an ultra-short film screening. It's called Experiments in Parahypnosis and it’s short-listed for DepicT!'11. The film will screen as part of the DepicT! showcase in Bristol this Saturday 19th November (3pm, Watershed Cinema 1, if you're in the hood). It's one of 14 films which are up for the DepicT! Award and the DepicT! British Special Mention Award. You can watch it here. Please rate it too, as I'll also be in the running for the Shooting People Audience Award. If you want to know more about the film, here’s a short interview. And if you want to see Bananarama sing Cruel Summer, click here.

Apart from shitting my pants about the screening, I'm really looking forward to seeing Canadian animation genius John Kricfalusi at Encounters. ‘John K.’ is the founder of Spumco and creator of The Ren and Stimpy Show. I'm pretty sure Ren and Stimpy had a warping influence on my childhood and re-watching episodes some years later produced a trigger-like effect, the long-term psychological impact of which is not yet known. It's blend of psychodrama, slapstick
 and an almost unbearable emotional intensity hits me in the gut every time. The animation is as beautiful as it is grotesque and however weird the stories get they’re grounded by a love that dare not speak it’s name (between a physically and psychologically abusive chihuahua and a remarkably stupid cat). One of my favourite parts of the show was always when Ren, pushed to the limit, would undergo a psychotic breakdown and completely lose his shit. If cartoon characters were eligible for Oscars, Ren Hoek would have one in the bag:


Anyway, where am I going with this? Bakshi, that’s where. I was excited to recently discover John K. had a connection to another innovator in the field whose work I admire: Ralph Bakshi. 
John K. was instrumental in the writing, directing and animating of Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, made in 1987. Mighty Mouse was helmed by said Bakshi, who has had a fascinating career in alternative animation and film. He also made one of my favourite animated features: a stunning, incomplete version of The Lord of the Rings (1978). More mysterious and scary than Peter Jackson's trilogy and a lot weirder. This is in part due to his extensive use of rotoscoping in the film, a technique whereby live action footage is animated over, frame by frame. Here's an amusing early example of rotoscoping in this Betty Boop hula dance, which is so intensely erotic that a nearby flower is compelled to commit suicide during Betty’s final few hip swings. Sad, but true.

Bakshi used the technique in some of the major battle scenes in LOTR (quite different to sexy hula dancing, I know). But the scenes with the Dark Riders (or what Tolkeinista’s would call ‘the Nazgul’) are electrifying, and utilise rotoscoping to chilling effect. In particular, a sequence where Frodo and the gang, not long clear of the Shire, hide from the rider that’s tailing them is particularly creepy. Plus, horses always look scary with red eyes.




Bakshi and John K. faced similarly grim fates with the studios that commissioned their shows; both were fired in controversial circumstances. John K.’s incident allegedly involved an episode where Ren violently assaults the George Liquor character with an oar, one smack too many for Nickelodeon. Bakshi got into trouble when an episode of Mighty Mouse (featuring a scene where our hero snorts the crushed petals of a flower) ignited a shit-storm in Middle America. In Bakshi’s defence, the flower was not of the narcotic variety.

So, a couple of edgy sketchers who push the limits of their art and craft. I leave you with this insane video for Bjork’s I Miss You, directed by John K. Mark the condom boob suckers.