Thursday, December 20, 2007

Anna M.


I've spent an interesting time trying to decipher Anna M., a French film generally touted as in the mould of The Page Turner or Haneke films such as Hidden or The Piano Teacher. In fact it is something rather different and much more like À la folie . . . pas du tout, a film I used with students very successfully a few years ago. And the connection is quite spooky since the young woman playing Anna, a stunning performance by Isabelle Carré, was also one of the main players in À la folie. In the earlier film, Carré played the wife of a doctor who becomes the focus for an erotic obsession by a young artist played by Audrey Tatou. In Anna M., she is the young woman with erotomania -- an obsessive love for the doctor who treats her after a failed suicide attempt. The two films share several narrative elements and even one identical shot, but overall they are quite different with À la folie working as a 'twist' narrative and being driven by Audrey Tatou's distinctive screen persona. Anna M. is, in one sense, more conventional, but also more puzzling since its 'significant objects' and the clues they hold to Anna's life are harder to pin down.

Anna M. is, I think, an auteur movie in the French sense. At least it was hailed at Berlin this year and its director Michel Spinosa has been interviewed as an auteur on several sites. I noted however, that in France it opened on 91 screens, expanding to 99 before dropping out of the French Top 20. (In the UK it opened on two prints from Metrodome.) The newspaper reviewers have been OK-ish about the film, but it has suffered the fate of many similar films. For the cinephiles, it is tainted by a too strong a reliance on genre and for the popular critics it is too slow or confusing in telling its story. I'm so tired of this, why not just deal with it on its own terms?

As with À la folie, I was drawn to comparisons with Polanski rather than the obvious Hollywood films (Fatal Attraction, Play Misty For Me etc.). Repulsion and The Tenant are two possible Polanski models. I quite like the 'collapse into melodrama' as one reviewer puts it and I enjoyed the frisson of horror in scenes with children and also Anna's relationship with her mother (with its oblique nod towards Carrie). As Sight & Sounds reviewer suggests, there are hints that mother too may have history of mental illness. Bizarrely, most of the UK critics make little mention of the central cultural references in the narrative. Eventually I tracked down the painting which seems to link Anna's obsession to the doctor -- The Childhood of the Virgin by the 17th century Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbarán . I don't want to give the ending away, except to say that it is quite baffling unless you accept the obvious explanation (and, yes, the painting features). (The ending is filmed in the French Alps as one of the public funding agencies involved is the Centre Européen Cinématographique Rhône-Alpes.)

Anna works in the National Library restoring antique books (and stealing several, it would seem). She also connects the doctor with The Song of Songs. As an ignoramus in terms of Biblical and classical education I didn't get much from these references as I watched the film, having to do my homework when I got home. Rather different cultural references are the songs from CocoRosie and Au Revoir Simone. I was reminded (somehow!) of watching Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, which conveys a sense of the ethereal world view of (suicidal) teenage girls. But perhaps this is not surprising since all the music for The Virgin Suicides came from the French duo, who recently toured with . . . CocoRosie. Isn't the internet wonderful?

Both The Virgin Suicides and À la folie were directed by women. I must find out what women filmmakers and theorists have made of Anna M. -- a film which takes an almost forensic interest in Isabelle Carré's body, primarily as a means of staying as close as possible to Anna's perspective on the world. Nevertheless, it raises interesting questions about the male and female 'gaze'.

The other interesting feature of Anna M. is its CinemaScope ratio and amazing mise en scene. Again, I have to give credit to Catherine Wheatley in Sight & Sound for pointing out that the warm palette complements the choice of locations in suggesting late 19th century Vienna rather than 21st century Paris and that this fits with the Freudian allusions to the 'case of' Anna M.

Can I show this to students? I'm not sure.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Talk to Me

Kasi Lemmons and Taraji P. Henson on the set of Talk to Me

I can't remember the last time I had so much fun in a cinema. Talk to Me has to be one of my favourite films of the year. I've always liked Don Cheadle and I've been a big fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor since Dirty Pretty Things. Director Kasi Lemmons I knew from that wonderful melodrama Eve's Bayou so I was looking forward to Talk to Me -- I just didn't expect it to be so knock-out.

The structure of the film is that of the classic show-business biopic, although the action is compressed into the period 1966-72 with a brief coda ten years later. Many critics are sniffy about biopics, but if I'm interested in the star/personality, I can live with a conventional story arc. The difference here is that by starting in the mid 1960s, we don't learn anything immediately about the early lives of the two central characters, Petey Greene and Dewey Hughes. Instead the narrative has to contrive ways of getting the two to tell each other about their backgrounds. One of the best examples of this is the terrific pool game in which Hughes/Ejiofor turns the tables on Greene/Cheadle.

Petey Greene was a radio star in Washington DC who was famous for 'keeping it real' and building up a large African-American audience during the period of Civil Rights triumphs leading into the Black Power period (when the backlash was felt). The film can thus draw on music, humour and politics as well as melodrama in terms of personal relationships. Perhaps the movie won't be such an emotional experience for younger audiences, but I found the sequences dealing with the assassination of Martin Luther King enormously affecting. The music throughout was terrific (the great Terence Blanchard creating the score) but when Cheadle played Sam Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come I was destroyed.

At heart, the movie is a male melodrama and deals with the emotional relationship between the two male characters. In a central dialogue exchange they both assert that they need each other -- Dewey can do the things Petey can't and Petey can say the things Dewey can't. The two men symbolise the different approaches by African-American men towards 'getting on' and preserving a sense of clear personal identity -- 'keeping it real'. The whole film hinges on the ability of the two actors to represent the nuances as well as the dramatic emotional highs and lows of this relationship. In a way, I think that Cheadle has the slightly easier task. He has to represent a fast-talking 'larger than life' character. He does this brilliantly but we have seen him do it before. On the other hand, Ejiofor has a much less defined character -- in the sense that Dewey has to be represented as 'buttoned-up' and conservative. But the character changes over the course of the narrative. Ejiofor actually has more to do to get this across, even if the performance has to be 'smaller' than Cheadle's. I confess that I watched Ejiofor so closely that I sometimes thought I could see him changing gear. I had a similar feeling watching Samantha Morton, another actor I rate very highly, in the marvellous Control. I decided then that my 'gaze' was far too focused on the one character and that in the context of the narrative, the performance worked very well. I think the same about Ejiofor as Dewey (and many respected critics have praised Ejiofor for the role). What certainly worked well was the changing facial hair and head hair of the characters. Ejiofor in full beard at the end of the film was significantly different from the rather preppy young man at the beginning.

Costume as well as hair was terrific and gave me lots of pleasure as well as neatly marking the transition through the late 1960s into the 1970s. It also enhanced the very big performance by Taraji P. Henson which had a section of the audience behind me in full appreciative voice. I guess some might question the portrayal of the woman who formed the third point of a triangle with Petey and Dewey as quite so 'out there' in a film directed by a woman. However, I think Kasi Lemmons handled the male relationship very well and the women in the narrative are necessarily in the background -- a consequence of sticking close to the facts in a biopic perhaps. There were some great performances from players in the minor roles, especially Martin Sheen as the studio boss and his secretary/receptionist Freda played by Alison Sealy-Smith who said more with a raised eyebrow than many actors manage with several lines of dialogue. Some critics have suggested that the early comic scenes in the radio station are very different in tone to some of the more dramatic scenes that come later. Again, it is demanded by the biopic structure and it works for me. Thinking about those scenes, I'm reminded of the wonderful ensemble playing in Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune.

I'm looking forward to watching the film again on DVD -- I understand that on the US DVD there are some interesting deleted scenes. Overall a great film -- and another triumph for the Canadian film industry since the studio work was all filmed in Toronto as far as I could work out.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Kilometro 31

Earlier this week, I went to Cineworld to see the Mexican horror movie, Kilómetro 31, with Nick. This was the third time we have been in the 'De Luxe' screen with the reclining seats as the only patrons. The previous occasions were also for subtitled films (the first Grudge film and Denys Arcand's Oscar winner, The Barbararian Invasions). Each of these three films represented a chance taken by a distributor in opening subtitled prints in a multiplex. All clearly failed in Bradford (although to be fair, it was the early evening show). What to make of this? I checked the UK Film Council's box office chart at the end of the week and Kilómetro 31 recorded one of the lowest screen averages of any film on a release of more than a few prints in my memory -- an average of £187 for 27 prints giving a weekly box office of not much more than £5,ooo. That's a pretty poor return for Yume Pictures who must have spent £25,000 getting the prints out. Unfortunately there was little if any promotion and only limited support from the specialised press. Yume have done some good work in getting cult films out there, but they boobed this time.

One question is whether the film would have done better showing a few weeks later at the National Media Museum -- i.e. on a 'specialised screen'. It might, but I also remember that The Host struggled last year at this time in both multiplexes and on specialised screens. Like The Host, Kilómetro 31 is not a 'specialised' film. It's a popular genre movie that in its domestic market did sensational business and ended up as one of Mexico's top box office films of recent years with 3.6 million admissions. The real problem is that UK audiences are not prepared to go for subtitled popular films. The arthouse audience seems to think that such films will be trashy and offensive and the popular audience perhaps thinks that they can't enjoy a film with subtitles. This last doesn't seem to be the case with the subtitled films I have shown to large student groups.

But is it any good you ask? We both thought that there were problems of pacing and plotting, but that overall it worked well and would certainly be worth showing to a student audience. For slightly older audiences (i.e. early 20s) it may be that the film suffers from coming at the tale end of the Ring Cycle and its American remakes. The ingredients are all familiar in the watery environments, young women with long black hair and a ghost child straight of The Grudge. Younger audiences might find these elements slightly less familiar. Of course, these generic tropes make the film much easier for critics to dismiss -- stand up Xan Brooks in the Grauniad with a fairly sloppy mini-review. Once again, the venerable Philip French in the Observer shows a more measured approach, recognising what Kilómetro 31 actually is and granting that it does its job pretty well.

The story is based on a 'local myth' which is a familiar narrative in other horror movies. In this case it is La Llorona or the 'Crying Woman' who appears to motorists on the highway and who in her way is just as dangerous as the mad hitchhiker of urban myths (or indeed as the old women who seduce and murder passing samurai in Japanese horror). Director Rigoberto Castañeda has claimed that the script took a long time to develop and that he was not directly influenced by The Grudge which appeared during the shoot. Hmm, perhaps! But The Ring was certainly out earlier. Does it matter? Not really, what is interesting is how the familiar elements are used and what they mean in a Mexican setting.

One interesting link is to Alfonso Cuarón's Y tu mamá también in which the three central characters -- from Mexico City -- tour rural areas and Cuarón uses a voiceover to tell the audience something about the lives of the people by the roadside and how they have been overlooked, oppressed by the urban 'neo-colonialists'. The four central characters here are urban motorists driving through a suburb where, at the time of colonisation, an Indian mother lost her child because of maltreatment by the Spanish (or as the subtitles intriguingly put it 'a Spaniard man'). Like Y tu mamá también, Kilómetro 31 has a Spanish character as one of the protagonists. The film is a Mexican-Spanish co-production, but the inclusion of the Spanish character is also an important narrative element.

A second link is to other US horror narratives such as the
Poltergeist films, in which a modern town/suburb is built over traditional burial grounds, allowing both a thematic of colonialism/materialism and the narrative promise of the 'return' of a ghost, who cannot sleep until injustice has been put right. This focus on the 'phantasm' is something which Guillermo del Toro has spoken about at length, especially in relation to his ghost creation in The Devil's Backbone. I wonder what del Toro thinks of Kilómetro 31? The Mexican reviewers have generally claimed that Kilometro 31 is a 'return' for Mexican horror after a 20 year absence. They tend not to count del Toro's Cronos (which I would certainly call horror), so I'm not sure what was the last Mexican horror film to be seen outside the country.

Finally, it's worth saying that the film looks good in 'Scope with a familiar (from The Ring) blue-green palette. Perhaps the most striking visual aspect is the director's penchant for extreme close-ups. One kiss in particular sees two noses in profile edging towards each other from either side of the 'Scope screen. Very disturbing!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Brick Lane

Tannishtha Chatterjee as Nazneen in Brick Lane

Seems a long time since I last posted. October/November are the busiest time of the year for me and I've taught lots of films, some several times over in the last few weeks. Perhaps between now and the New Year I'll get to see more for pleasure.

And so to Brick Lane with no prior thoughts, having not read the book but aware of the controversy. I enjoyed the film, but I can recognise that there are problems. The most obvious comparison for me is with My Son the Fanatic (UK 1997), one of my favourite films of the 1990s. It isn't that the narratives are necessarily similar, but something about the general theme of generations and coming to terms with living in another country -- as well as a rather gentle and muted mise en scene disrupted by occasional bursts of colour and excitement. With Udayan Prasad directing Hanif Kureshi's script, I think Fanatic wins out, but Brick Lane has much going for it.

I was impressed with the even-handedness of Brick Lane. The husband is not an ogre, but a well-meaning and thoughtful man with genuine feelings. The family feels like a recognisable family and the mother/central character should break the hardest heart. I've seen several reviews that make comparisons to Satyajit Ray, which seems a little strong, if well-meaning. In some ways the flashbacks to Bengal were the problem for me. I can see why they are there and separately, the scenes in Bengal and Whitechapel worked. But cut them together and I wasn't sure. I gather from some reviews that this is an issue in adapting the book and perhaps that is why Fanatic with its original script seems more coherent. What does work very well in Brick Lane for me is the music and I'm rediscovering the beautiful voice of Natacha Atlas all over again.

Generally, I love 'Scope films and the opening scenes of Brick Lane -- in Bengal -- work very well visually, but I'm less sure about the aesthetic decision when the film moves to London. There is nothing wrong with a London drama in 'Scope (Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland is one of my favourite films) but it does suggest a 'big' film, either in scale or in melodrama excess. Brick Lane is perhaps a 'small film'. But, despite my cavils, one which is well worth watching.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Tough enough?


I was pleasantly surprised by Knallhart (Tough Enough) a German film from 2006 which sneaked out in September in the UK without my noticing it. I caught it at Cornerhouse in Manchester and was glad I did. It's always good to see a film when you know nothing about it and this intrigued me from the off. The 15 year-old central character is well drawn and offers a range of emotions that seemed believable. It's a film which in different ways reminded me of La Haine and Sweet Sixteen and I can't think of higher praise.

Michael Polischka is a 15 year-old with an attractive mother of "only just over 30" as she reminds him. At the beginning of the story, Michael and his mother are thrown out on the street by her rich lover in the leafy suburbs. Michael finds himself in a tough inner city area of Berlin in a dismal flat and forced to attend an inner city school which seems rough even by UK standards. And the story moves on from there in quite conventional ways. The film makes the usual connections between crime and delinquent youth and recent immigrant communities, in this case two East European youths, who befriend Michael at school and take him home to chill out, and the 'enemy' gang, led by a Turkish youth. Eventually Michael gets involved as a drug-runner working for a suave and attractive young Turkish crime lord. He also casts envious eyes at Turkish family life (and a gorgeous young Turkish woman). The ending is well handled and explains the enigmatic beginning -- all in all a well-executed youth picture/crime story which offers a view of the 'New Berlin'. Well worth catching.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Becoming a pod person

In the week when a fourth version of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is released in a vain attempt to recreate the success of the 1956 Don Siegel original, it seems appropriate to reflect on pods and podcasting. My free iPod shuffle arrived today, a gift from Sofa Cinema for subscribing for a minimum of 4 months. It seemed a good deal at the time and I'm very pleased with what I've heard so far, having transferred a playlist of my favourite Canadian artists in a single click. Brilliant!

Tonight I've also achieved something else in recording a streamed radio programme from BBC Radio 4 via the 'play again' function. Recording was very simple using Quicktime Pro. The programme recorded was The Archive Hour celebrating the births of the five 1907 centurions of UK documentary. I have listened carefully all the way through, but Marion Grierson and Paul Rotha weren't in the segments I registered. The main attraction of the programme for me was the archive recordings of John Grierson, Basil Wright, Edgar Anstey etc. as well as Lindsay Anderson. There wasn't too much new in the actual content, except for occasional gems such as Basil Wright meeting Grierson for the first time in a 'communist club' in Soho called the 1917 Club or some such. It was also good to hear Andy Medhurst affirming that if you wanted to know about the lives of the working class in the 1930s, you should watch a George Formby film.

This is also the week when the BBC launches its podcast service and I think I'll subscribe to at least one Radio 4 programme, probably Laurie Taylor's Thinking Aloud (which this week also included a hymn of praise to the aforementioned Mr Medhurst). Finally, I must record how pleased I am to hear Jane Garvey on Woman's Hour on Radio 4. I'm a long time fan of Jane on Radio 5's drivetime programme and it will be a shame if she will no longer be heard teasing Peter Allen, but she deserves to get a chance on Radio 4 as the consummate broadcaster she surely is. She is the third of the first generation of Radio 5's women to make it to Radio 4, following Diana Madill and Fi Glover. Radio 5 is dismissed by some snobby radio commentators in the UK, but there is plenty of real talent on the station.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Who is The Brave One?


The answer to the question may be Jodie Foster who stars in The Brave One. It might be Neil Jordan for taking on the direction. Both of them risked a critical mauling, but seem to have been rescued at the pass by the great American audience. I'm not sure if it is the prospect of this audience or the film itself which frightens me more. I've rarely been so exercised by a film.

I'm a Jodie Foster supporter, though I haven't seen that many of her films. I could say much the same about Neil Jordan, whose Hollywood pictures have never attracted me as much as the Irish/British ones. Putting the two together should promise something worthwhile. And indeed, for most of this film, Foster is excellent and Jordan provides several standout sequences. The script, however just isn't up to the job for me. As several critics have pointed out, the problem lies somewhere in the film's reference to genre repertoires. If The Brave One is judged as a 'revenge' thriller, it falls far short of the narrative economy and sheer drive of Abel Ferrara's Ms 45. I've not seen Death Wish, but I've read suggestions that it too is superior as a genre/expoitation film (whatever may be the worries about its politics). The Brave One wants to be more than an exploitation film but it lacks the clear sense of purpose that a film like A History of Violence offers. Instead, it features various subplots like the potential romance between cop and victim/avenger (prompting references to Jane Campion's In the Cut, a film which itself has genre problems, but which overall is more coherent) and the cod philosophy associated with a protagonist who is a very rare breed, a radio soundscape designer cum commentator. These aspects of the film mean it has the potential to be an interesting character study.

But I have to own up. My real problem is with American politics and gun control (the lack of it – the Jodie Foster character gets around it immediately). As a European, I just can't take seriously a film with no sense of moral purpose whatsoever apart from the belief that this 'good person' can do whatever they need to do to regain their confidence after a brutal attack. So, people are killed as if they were not human beings and a supposedly liberal character and a police officer can ignore the law without any sense of loss or any impact on their sense of moral well-being or mental health. In 1983, Tony Garnett, best known as a producer for Ken Loach, directed his second feature, Handgun, set in America and featuring a woman who is raped and who buys a gun seeking revenge. I don't remember the film in any detail, but I'm sure it was a considered argument against the use of firearms. In one of the more obvious role models for The Brave One, the Scorsese/Schrader Taxi Driver from 1976, there is a single major shootout, a psychotic protagonist and a deeply moral and disturbing take on American urban culture at the time of the withdrawal from Vietnam. In The Brave One there is a mention of Iraq and a character representing the terrors of wars in Africa where children are armed and trained to kill their parents (I'm assuming the character who makes this comment is from Sierra Leone). There are, I think, eight killings in The Brave One that are apparently 'justified'.

If you want to get depressed, read the IMDB comments. The first one I read that made a concerted attack on the film's politics as rightist ended up by claiming that it would be supported by "rabid feminists". As the Americans say, 'Go figure!'.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Daratt

Ali Barkai as Atim and Youssouf Djaoro as Nassara in Daratt

Daratt (Dry Season) (Chad/France/Belgium/Austria 2006) is a simple tale which nevertheless seems to say a great deal. It takes place in Chad where a 'Justice and Retribution' Commission is reporting on war crimes after a long civil war. Atim (a name that means orphan) is summoned by his grandfather and instructed to find the man who killed his father and execute him. Atim sets off for the city and finds the man (Nassara), now a baker with a young wife and suffering from various wounds and ailments. Atim is hired by Nassara to work in his bakery, despite his aggressive stance. Eventually, Nassara comes to rely on Atim – will the execution take place?

I found the film engrossing despite its slow pace. It's a while since I've seen any new African films (I actually have the previous film by this director on DVD, but I've not watched it -- I will now) and I'm struggling to place it in relation to what I know. There is little here of either the magical realism of a Souleymane Cissé, the politics of a Sembene Ousmane or the postmodernism of a Djibril Diop Mambéty. Perhaps the films of Idrissa Ouedraogo are more relevant. Visually, this film is very spare with long shots and MLS of dusty streets and the bakery with occasional MCUs and CUs. The nighttime scenes are distinctive with Atim walking into pools of light and then back into total blackness.

Atim is at once a 'country boy' in the city and a modern 'rebel' figure. When he jokes on his mobile 'phone and suddenly sprays his armpits with deodorant, we are reminded that this is a young man in a young man's world. He speaks only rarely and it is a sign of the desperate loneliness that Nassara feels, that he quickly grows to love Atim despite constant rebuffs. I'm strongly tempted to see the film as in some way metaphorical in that Atim represents a future in which the young men of Chad can escape from the ravages of the past and come to terms with reconciliation without losing everything of tradition. Perhaps I'm being too optimistic -- I hope not. Definitely worth seeing.

Monday, September 03, 2007

British Film Forever?

This has been the Summer of British Film, a concoction dreamed up by the BBC and the UK Film Council, comprising three linked 'strands' -- newly minted digital copies of well-known British films in cinemas on Tuesday evenings, a series of 'themed' documentaries on Saturday night on BBC2 and a linked series of screenings of British films scattered around the BBC2 schedules.

It isn't absolutely clear what the purpose of the whole enterprise might have been. The cinema screenings have been for very well-known films that only the youngest audiences wouldn't know from TV screenings. It's nice to see these films get a cinema outing, but it's difficult for me to get excited by them. However, if it gets any new audiences into cinemas, fine.

More problematic is the BBC2 contribution. On the whole this has been an excellent opportunity badly wasted in my view. The expectation, on BBC2, is for a reasonably sensible documentary with an educational or artistic purpose as well as being entertaining. This hasn't been in evidence. Talking heads such as Phil Jupitus, Billy Bragg and Ewan McGregor share screentime with noted film academics such as Ian Christie. There is a woeful voiceover delivered by Jessica Stevenson, presumably to attract younger audiences and the script is all over the place (Matthew Sweet is mentioned, but I'm sure he isn't totally responsible). The programmes are themed by genre, but little thought seems to have gone into what a genre might be or how to explain it. The clips are chopped up and usually presented in the wrong ratio (i.e. Academy becomes 16:9 and so does 'Scope). I watched the first in the series and decided not to bother with the rest. I then relented and thought I'd give it a second chance, but Saturday's programme roughly themed around 'war' was just as bad. I wept for Jack Cardiff and Thelma Schoonmaker, interviewed between clips of Powell & Pressburger films cropped to fit into 16:9 frames, destroying careful compositions willy-nilly (and nearly cutting Pressburger's name off a title card). These programmes, if they are meant to attract a new audience for older British films, should be on BBC1 (or BBC3?).

The film screenings have included some interesting titles, but also several have been ruined by 'pan and scan'. Poor Sidney Furie -- three of his early 1960s films have been on in the last few weeks (The Ipcress File, The Boys and The Leather Boys), all panned and scanned.

Something very strange is going on at the BBC. Perhaps producers and schedulers no longer talk to each other? On Sunday night, a second documentary, this time under the Arena label, was shown on BBC2 with the title 'Flames of Passion'. Bizarrely, it used some of the same clips from the British Film Forever doc of the night before -- but this time they were presented properly in the correct ratio and from excellent prints that positively glowed in terms of expressionist lighting for the late 1940s pictures. No talking heads and a voiceover by the mellifluous Miriam Margolyes, more time on each film and a structure (with chapter heads) that at least made sense and the inclusion of some much less well-known material -- by comparison with the night before this was a gem of a programme. I guessed that Bob Murphy must have been involved somewhere and he was listed as Research Consultant. Cheers Bob! I remember the course you put on at the BFI on the sensationalist melos of the late 1940s with much joy.

I imagine a lot of teachers will think about using the British Film Forever docs for background. I urge them not to -- or at least to contextualise them very carefully. But 'Flames of Passion' is a must (fans will recognise the title as being the film trailed when Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard make their trip to the cinema in Brief Encounter).

Thursday, August 23, 2007

GCSE Media Results

Today attention switches to GCSE Media Studies. Over the last few years, entries to GCSE Media have risen dramatically. Since media studies as a subject is not part of National Curriculum, examined courses at KS4 (14-16) in England and Wales have always suffered in comparison to the more market-led situation post 16. At A Level, some 4% of candidates take AS/A2 Film or Media Studies, but only around 1% take GCSE Media. This means that the numbers are significant, but don't as yet cause the same murmurs amongst traditionalists in education as the presence of A Level Media in the Top 10 subjects.

This year's results posted by the Joint Council for Qualifications show that in 2007 there were 66,425 candidates for GCSE Media, representing a significant increase on the 57,521 in 2006. In fact, according to the 'trends' report on the JCQ website, media studies shows a 15.4% increase in take-up. This makes it No 3 in the 'Top 10 subject increases', but since this table is topped by the relatively small numbers representing Additional Maths, media is still growing as fast as in 2006 when it was No 2. The champion is Statistics with an increase of 21% for a total of 82,000. It does look as if all the attempts to boost Maths are having some effect at both GCSE and A Level and this may deflect some of the predicted attacks on media. However, a little lower down the Top 10 increases are the three separate science subjects. There has been a clamour for a return to single science GCSEs because combined science does not seem to be 'stretching' students. Biology, Physic and Chemistry are, as a result of official promotion, growing by 4-5% a year, but this clearly doesn't match media studies which, without official sanction, is ahead of any of the single science subjects. I suspect that this will be picked up by commentators. It's worth remembering though, that media is still relatively small beer at this level. The main National Curriculum subjects each attract over 200,000 candidates. Religious Studies has been one of the recent success stories and it now attracts over 170,000.

In the next couple of years, Film Studies GCSE will make its appearance and will no doubt add a few more thousand. For the moment, more attention might be paid to the vocational alternatives. The new 'Applied Media' course has only been piloted in a few centres so far, but it has produced some results (300) so far. I was also intrigued to discover that a Journalism GCSE is offered by the Awarding Body in Northern Ireland, CCEA and this produced 170 candidates in 2007. BTEC results are not included in the JCQ press release, so I will report on these when I find them.

Floating Clouds and Late Chrysanthemums

The second Naruse Mikio screening at the National Media Museum this week provided an interesting comparison with When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. The same two stars, Takamine Hideko and Masayuki Mori were the leads in Floating Clouds (Japan 1955) and the focus was again on a 'suffering' woman in a melodrama, but there were also some striking differences.

First Floating Clouds was shot in Academy ratio, 1.33:1. Naruse does not have a distinctive visual style and the change of screen size should not be too significant, but for me the 'Scope film seemed much more coherent in its use of framing and composition. Floating Clouds was quite conventionally shot and perhaps it was the rather abrupt edits marking shifts in time periods (i.e. character's memories) that made it feel less coherent. Many of the scenes in small houses and narrow alleys in Tokyo were reminiscent of Ozu's Tokyo Story. However, where Ozu's camera often stays at the eye level of a child or someone kneeling on a tatami mat, Naruse simply follows the characters -- when they are in a traditional room, the camera is low level but at other times it rises with them.

Floating Clouds has the attention to social detail that I'm coming to realise is a Naruse trait. The story deals with a couple returning to Japan after the war has ended from their posting with a forestry team in Indo-China (presumably Vietnam). The misery of the Occupation and the struggle to survive economically and morally provides the context for an abortive romance. Unlike When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, written by Kikushima Ryuzo, responsible for many of Kurosawa's scripts, Floating Clouds is an adaptation of a novel by the very popular Hayashi Fumiko. In fact, Floating Clouds was the fifth Naruse film based on Ms Hayashi's novels. Perhaps then Floating Clouds is more like the norm for Naruse? When I got to see Late Chrysanthemums (Japan 1954) just a few days later, this naive assumption was soon discarded.

In the pub after the screening someone suggested that the film was 'Bressonian' and that seems like a good reference. Whereas Floating Clouds is a fairly conventional melodrama in terms of structure and presentation, Late Chrysanthemums, based on three short stories by Hayashi, is almost a pure character piece with little plot but a lot of opportunity to reflect on the lives of ageing geisha. Four women in early middle age, like four flowers whose bloom is fading, struggle to make ends meet. Or at least three of them do. The fourth has become a moneylender (and property speculator), but money can't buy her happiness and she is disappointed to find that men only want to borrow money. This film seemed linked, thematically and structurally, more to When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. Once again, we get the detail of everyday life in Tokyo. If anything, there are even more scenes of money changing hands. Aesthetically, the film seems more fluent and coherent than Floating Clouds, which now seems much more of a genre piece.

The two earlier films did make me think about Ozu. They show ordinary families in ordinary settings (although Ozu's families are perhaps more genteel). There are plenty of Ozu railway scenes. Neither Ozu or Naruse got commercial releases in the UK in the 1950s and in retrospect it's not difficult to see why. Mizoguchi and Kurosawa offered films that were at once more 'exotic', more exciting, more expressionist and more obviously 'humanist'. Naruse's films do require an appreciation of the day to day nuances of Japanese cultural life. Late Chrysanthemums also refers to memories of Manchuria (and rather surprisingly, to the prospect of going to Korea) -- some knowledge of Japanese imperialism is required to fully appreciate these references. I'm not sure I would have appreciated Naruse when I was younger and when i was even more ignorant of Japanese culture.

I'm glad I saw these films and I'll look out for the DVD titles that are already published.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

National Treasures

Caught the end of this week's repeat of 'National Treasures' (Radio 4) - which pitched Canterbury Cathedral up against Damien Hirst's diamond skull for their national cultural value. Great prgramme and referred to programme two, where the Cutty Sark and the BFI national archive were discussed as worthy causes for public money.

On listen again, caught a fascinating programme about the value of the moving image against an ancient, preserved monument - the whole programme worth it to hear Terence Davies argue so convincingly and passionately about the value of filmmaking. It was a done-deal - BFI won hands-down.

The ability to access this archive now at the BFI is a fantastic asset - one perhaps to develop for dispersal on-line, or otherwise to benefit 'Our Friends in the North'?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Level Media results day

The 2007 A Level Media and Film results are available from the Joint Council for Qualifications on its website. The 2007 trends statement is also important to download.

My first impression is that the great expansion in numbers has now slowed down. Total entries for A Level Media/Film were 31,942 (an increase of 3.16%). This drops Media down the league table for 'increase in entries' from 2nd to 8th and should kill the comments about diverting students from Maths etc. In fact, Maths, Science and Spanish are the subjects with noticeable increases this year. AS Film/Media had 44,392 entries (an increase of 3.19% which didn't even get a mention in the Top 10 of subject increases).

At both AS and A2, Media/Film now accounts for 4% of all candidates. Females still outnumber males and they perform significantly better in terms of grades. At A Level the overall pass rate at Grade A for Media/Film is 14.1%, but for females alone it is 16.3%. Media continues to be a relatively 'hard subject' in terms of getting a Grade A.

Overall, Media/Film has moved up one place to Number 9 most popular A Level subject (changing places with Geography). Of all the 'new' subjects, Psychology is by far the most successful -- at Number 5 in the chart with 52,000 candidates.

What the current figures don't show is the split between Media Studies and Film Studies. It may well be that the increases relate more to Film than to Media.

The Applied A Level in Media has now reached A2 and there were 567 candidates (slightly more males) of whom 11.3% gained a Grade A. This is a far higher proportion than in other Applied A Levels, but overall Media attracted only 1.7% of entries. At AS numbers rose from 735 in 2006 to 912 and females were back in front and gaining more Grade 'A's. But at AS, only 1.8% of candidates took Media, down from 1.9% in 2006.

Communication Studies at AS/A2 is running at around o.3% of all A Level candidates, showing a slightdecline to 3,261 at AS and a very slight increase to 2,144 at A Level.

Pick 'n Mix

Two examples of interesting combinations of subjects from Blackpool & Fylde College (This is Lancashire website).

"Outstanding students this year included Leanne Hyland who gained A grades in Film Studies, Maths and Psychology as well as an A in A/S level Further Maths. Leanne is going to go to Edinburgh University to study Maths.

Lauren Martin came to the College from St Mary's High School. She gained an A in Psychology and B grades in Film Studies, Business Studies and General Studies. After a year out she is aiming to go to Lancaster University or Manchester University to study for a degree in Marketing Management or Business."

. . . more traditionally, this from 'Cambs Times': "Amongst the college success stories is Joshua Butler of Wisbech who achieved straight A's at A Level, in film studies, media studies, English language and literature. Joshua is intending to read film with English studies at the University of East Anglia."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tanzania and Nollywood

Yvone Cherry and Stephen Kanumba as the couple in She Is My Sister

There are only a handful of Tanzanian films produced each year and few of these are screened outside the festival circuit. As a consequence, I've never seen one. When the British had colonies in Africa their policy was to offer training in making documentaries and instructional films. One consequence of this in East Africa is a general lack of commercial, entertainment-based filmmaking. Something similar was also the case in West Africa, but in Nigeria and Ghana an alternative, highly populist, video cinema movement began in the 1980s. 'Nollywood' now claims to be the world's third biggest film industry after India and the US, with hundreds of cheap video films produced each year.

Nollywood has now spread to East Africa and I was fortunate to be given a VCD of a joint Tanzanian/Nigerian production entitled She Is My Sister (2007). This follows a previous joint venture Dar 2 Lagos (2007). I was given She Is My Sister because it is performed mostly in English. Most Tanzanian cultural products use Swahili but in this case three of the leads are Nigerian (as is the director) so English may simply have been more convenient. However, I'm not sure how that would affect the potential market for the film.

VCD is the preferred format for cheap film distribution in South and South East Asia and I've also noticed them in the Middle East, so it's no surprise to find films on VCD in Africa as well. The image quality on my computer is not great, but it is watchable. There are two discs in the box and the total film length is around 74 minutes with 6 minutes of trailers on Disc 1.

She Is My Sister is recognisable as a melodrama in terms of its plot and exaggerated acting style. To deal with the stylistic features first, there is little to say. The film is presented in a standard TV ratio of 4:3. There are a couple of establishing shots of streets in Dar es Salaam, but otherwise the film is composed in medium shot, like a television soap opera, with occasional close-ups and occasional tableaux to show characters in their surroundings as in the shot of the couple with their new furniture above. The overall style is quite constrained compared to the trailers for other productions. (The trailers are highly wrought with flash edits and zooms, but this may simply be a trailer style.) Overall, the camerawork and editing is competent, although some shots are held for far too long. (At the beginning of the film we have to watch nearly every passenger get off a long distance coach before we meet the first significant character.)

Far more interesting is the overall narrative. This is in part a universal morality tale. Melodrama has often been an important mode for exploring social relationships at times of major societal change -- such as in Europe in the 19th century. She Is My Sister focuses on a young woman, Rose, from a rural village who gets to university and then is able to get a job/open a business selling imported electronics goods. This all happens before the narrative begins and we see her return to her village where she finds her childhood sweetheart who she takes back to the city and introduces to her girlfriends. The 'country bumpkin', Danny, turns out to be very good at running the shop and before long the couple are married with a small child. Danny, played by Steven Kanumba who also wrote the script and seems to be one of Tanzania's successful young stars, also becomes very attractive to Rose's friend Flora. Flora is a repugnant character, an uber bitch played with relish by Nigerian actress Nkiru Silvanus. When she steals Danny, Rose's whole life falls apart.

The plot is very thin and there are few surprises. The only narrative device of note is the use of flashback so that at the beginning Rose's sister arrives in the city for a visit and discovers Rose no longer lives in a 'gated mansion', but is now in a squalid back street apartment. Rose then tells her the story . . . It is the elements of the narrative that are interesting. The rural/city contrast is often represented by an opposition of cunning v. authenticity and here the couple from the country are corrupted by the city lifestyle. The woman has an education, but she has been seduced by material gain and may lose everything when her man succumbs to the sophisticated woman. As in many of the Nollywood films, there is a second part to the story according to the title at the end of the film which warns us to "Watch out for She Is My Sister 2". Perhaps Rose fights back?

Tanzania is a poor country, but most of the action in this film takes place in a world of flatscreen TVs, gated houses, servants and expensively decorated rooms. There is clearly an aspirational lifestyle being offered. The film has an 18 certificate, but there is no overt sexuality or graphic violence. Perhaps the immorality alone is enough to get this rating? Tanzania has strong Christian and Muslim communities. I don't know if this has had an impact on certification. There is a hint of possible domestic violence, but nothing like what is evident in the Swahili language films trailed on the VCD in which violence, mainly, but not always, by men towards women seems to be a common feature.

Aflad.co.uk is a UK online seller of Nigerian VCD/DVDs.

A Level Media Results

As usual the same tired arguments about A Level Media Studies have been trotted out again in the last few days in the build-up to the release of the actual results. In the Guardian last week Peter Wilby wrote quite a sensible piece offering a refreshing view on the debate -- but was then deluged by bloggers representing the 'dumbing down' camp. Today the Daily Telegraph has had the nerve to repeat more or less the same story that ran in the Mail at this time last year with rent-an-education-quote Alan Smithers on 'soft subjects' like media studies.

This year I'm going to try to rebut at least some of the charges on behalf of the Media Education Association. The 'soft subject' charge is made against a raft of subjects. They are likely to be either potentially radical (sociology is still in this category and still being described as 'soft', just as it was in the 1970s) or possibly too 'vocational' like business studies. The prejudices come from traditionalists and those whose own educational background has involved either 'high culture' arts or 'hard sciences'. The charges have very little to do with any kind of evidence.

Media studies may be many things, but like most subjects it offers the opportunity for students to stretch themselves or to take an easier option and just pass the exam. The problem is really the exam system. The same people who think media studies is a soft option are also those who claim that students are all exam grade chasers. But this is contradictory logic. No student who chooses a course because they think they will get a higher grade would then select Media Studies at A Level, since the proportion of A grades is low compared to most traditional subjects. So, does that mean that students who choose media are the less 'street smart' students who don't know what they are doing? That could be true at AS, but they soon learn that it isn't a doss and many drop out before A2. We know that media students come from all kinds of schools and colleges and there are now enough of them (about 4% of all A Level students) to be confident that the media cohort is representative of the whole student population. There is a small percentage of students who don't consider taking media studies because the press, their school or their parents have attempted to put them off. Whether these students would get higher grades if they did take media studies is impossible to know. The truth of course is that the students who make it to A2 Media Studies are there because they want to be, because they enjoy the subject and think that it is relevant to their lives.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Provocation

Lisa Ray and John Abraham in Water.

I finally managed to see Deepa Mehta's Water (Canada/India 2005) and I surprised myself by being quite moved by the film which deals with a clash between the tradition of widows being effectively imprisoned for the rest of their lives and the possibility of change in India coming from Ghandian political ideas. The focus of the narrative is a romance between a young widow and a law student and its impact on two other widows. My sense was that, despite the controversy which caused production in India to be stopped and moved to Sri Lanka and the film's subsequent success in gaining an Oscar nomination, the UK reviews were rather lukewarm. I remember enjoying Fire (1996), the first of the 'elemental trilogy', but also finding it a strange Indian/Western hybrid. I'm intending to watch Earth (1998) later this week.

Water, I was convinced, was an Indian film. I didn't research the film before I watched it so I wasn't aware that it had been filmed in Sri Lanka. However, I did get a sense during the screening of watching landscapes in South India rather than on the Ganges. Lisa Ray and John Abraham were new to me. I can understand some of the comments about the realism question. Both actors are very beautiful and their parentage (Ray is Indian/Polish and Abraham is Iranian/Indian Christian) means that they look exotic in an Indian setting. But really it isn't a problem and in a way their casting adds another level of meaning to any reading of the narrative. I was also surprised to be offered a selection of A. R. Rahman songs. At least one of these was mixed badly in the film print I watched, but overall they seemed to work.

The big issue, of course, is whether the film works in the same way in the West as in India. On IMDB, the Canadian reviews are generally excellent, partly pride in Canadian Cinema, partly a Western liberal response to the plight of widows in 1930s India, I guess. IMDB reviews and comments by Indians on the other hand are sometimes extremely negative. I attribute this to the obverse of the Canadian response -- a feeling that the filmmaker has somehow betrayed Indian culture/is not proud of Indian Cinema, but also from a Hindu perspective, the film is disrespectful of religious teachings. There is a great deal about the controversy over Water scattered across the internet and I don't particularly want to get embroiled in the politics of Hindu Nationalism. What interests me here is what the Indian critics have to say about the film -- as a film. I came across this blog, seemingly by an NRI/desi with deep knowledge of Indian 'parallel cinema', that offered a withering appraisal -- much of it focusing on aspects of the film requiring cultural knowledge. For instance, the spoken Hindi in the film is 'stilted' and doesn't convey any authenticity. Similarly, the saris are polyester, the taxis in the street are wrong, the costumes are wrong and so is the representation of Ghandi at the end of the film. The blogger is angry with the film on nearly every level, including what is seen as a crass use of quotes from Hindu writings. Overall, the blogger pines for the directors and stars of parallel cinema. Lisa Ray and John Abraham are criticised for their acting. I'm always worried by these criticisms since appraisal of acting styles is often highly subjective. However, I can see that the film would have been very different if Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das had appeared as the two adult widows (the third widow is a child) as Deepa Mehta originally intended. (A report on the original shoot with an image of Azmi and Das is on this Bright Lights Film Journal page.)

I wish my knowledge of parallel cinema was more extensive, but I've seen quite a few and Water wouldn't stand up to a comparison with the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen or of Shyam Benegal. There were moments when the scenario and some aspects of the cinematography reminded me of those earlier films (I think it's the second film of the Apu Trilogy from Ray, Aparajito (1956) which features the ghats of Benares) but overall Deepa Mehta's aim was different. Like Mira Nair, she is trying to make films about Indian culture for both a Western audience and a younger popular audience in India. And on this score, according to a number of Indian reviews, she seems to have succeeded. The film is: "Art without being arty, which is truly rare and wonderful" as one young Indian blogger puts it. This doesn't negate the cultural criticism (and I did find more) and I think that is a weakness. On the other hand, shifting production to Sri Lanka must have been a nightmare and to manage to acheive what she has in the circumstances deserves support. To attract audiences to a consideration of social issues, even if it involves some misunderstandings is something Bollywood hasn't managed. Despite the criticisms some Indians seem to have supported Water as an Oscar contender (as the Canadian foreign language entry) over the Indian entry Rang De Basanti -- I guess I should see that soon and look at a comparison.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Perfection?

Takamine Hideko as Keiko, the Mama-san in a Ginza bar.

When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Japan 1960, dir. Naruse Mikio) has just about everything I could wish for in a movie – a beautiful heroine presented in a B+W 'Scope melodrama in which she must make almost impossible decisions about how to gain her independence in patriarchal Japan. Whilst the story reminded me very much of Mizoguchi Kenji's suffering women, the milieu of early 1960s Tokyo was reminiscent of Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (also 1960) and Masumura Yasuzo's A Wife Confesses (1962). However, Naruse's mise en scène seems less expressionist -- or perhaps just more subtle than that of the other three directors. The compositions are careful and usually quite simple and the story is carried by the acting and the use of locations, costume and set design. What impressed me most about the film was the wealth of social detail.

Tokyo in 1960 seems on the cusp of the great leap forward towards the Japanese economic resurgence. The cars on the street are still American and in the bars the brands are British, French or American. Keiko's apartment is 'modern', but her family home in the suburbs by the river could still be part of 1930s Tokyo. The mixing of traditional and modern/Western costume, decor and food tells us a great deal about the characters. Keiko is always dressed traditionally ('conservatively', as she tells her mother).

The central premise of the narrative is that the 30 year-old widow Keiko is facing the reality of her situation as a popular hostess (in fact the senior hostess or Mama-san) of a bar in Ginza, Tokyo's entertainment district. Her options appear to be to set up her own bar or to marry one of her rich clients. She can't really afford to stand still. Everyone is struggling to make their way in the new world of potential prosperity, so whatever she chooses she will have to face the unpalatable consequences of her actions (e.g. other hostesses who have set up in their own bars have been driven to suicide by the economic pressure involved in borrowing money and repaying the interest). The social context is economically summed up in Keiko's voiceover in which she tells that at 11.30 each night, 15,000 women in Ginza leave the bars and other places of entertainment. The first-class women take taxis, the second-class take the train to the suburbs and the others go home with their clients.

There are two more Naruse films in the short season in Bradford. I can't wait.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Constructing TV?

I'm really not sure what to make of the current hysteria about 'faking it' on television. I can't decide whether this is an indictment of media educationists -- that there are still people out there that think that what is on television is 'real' -- or that it shows just how important universal 'media literacy' is. It's the latter of course. What the current controversy shows is not that television is 'dumbing down', but rather that no matter how 'media savvy' or sophisticated television audiences may appear to be, they don't reflect on what they watch with any critical distance. As regards what happens within the TV industry, I was struck by (66 year-old) Paul Watson (director of the programme on the couple coping with Alzheimer's) suggesting on Radio 4 that the mistakes in presentation were being made by "young guys with mortgages" desperate to get the ratings. He's probably right.

I can't really pontificate on the current range of programming that is under fire since I haven't seen any of the programmes in question. I'm not going to argue that this is because I have superior viewing tastes, but there is a cultural change taking place that I'm clearly not part of.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Holiday viewing

Watching movies on a plane is at best a welcome diversion from the tedium of flying. On a long-haul flight it becomes more attractive. Even so, it isn't the best basis for commenting on individual films. The screen is tiny on the back of the seat in front, the aspect ratio is usually wrong and there are constant interruptions. Even so I was grateful to see a Hindi movie (with English subtitles) on a flight to Nairobi, thanks to the selection of films on offer by Kenya Airways. Khosla Ka Ghosla (India 2006) proved to be a gentle and enjoyable social comedy, an almost 'pure' genre film with none of the usual trappings of Bollywood. A middle-class father is approaching retirement and the day has come when he has finally purchased a plot of land on which to build the family home of his dreams. However, he is conned out of the land by an unscrupulous builder/speculator who claims to have already purchased the same land and who has the legal resources to defend his claim. The key character in the ensuing comic narrative is the second son 'Cherry' – a young computer executive not really interested in the family and preparing to take up a career opportunity in North America. But, of course, at the last minute he can't see his father humiliated so he attempts to help. The strategy that is finally adopted seems almost Ealingesque. Cherry's girlfriend is an actor and she recruits her teacher and his son to effectively become con artists and to trick the evil speculator into 'buying' land that belongs to a government agency.

I thought the acting all round was very good and I thought I recognised some actors. Checking on IMDB, I found the father had also played the father in Bend It Like Beckham and the son had been the bridegroom in Monsoon Wedding.

On the return flight, slightly miffed that the Chinese (Hong Kong) movie showing on Boeing 767 services was not available on the 777 flight, I decided to try out the Hollywood studio offerings. It was probably meaningless to watch Casino Royale on such a tiny screen, but the action was certainly well staged and Daniel Craig is a decent performer. However, I found the plot incomprehensible at times. After spending a fortnight in Tanzania, I felt I really should look at The Last King of Scotland and how it captured events in Uganda in the 1970s. I had avoided watching the film in the cinema because I just didn't fancy the story. All the clips I'd seen just made me wince. The film has been highly praised, not just for Forest Whitaker's performance but also for the gradual development of what seems like a light-hearted story into the nightmare of Idi Amin's presidency. Well, I gave it twenty minutes or so and it just didn't work for me (which may have been a result of sleep deprivation). I just couldn't believe in the James McAvoy character at all. I know this young actor is highly regarded and the profiles of him suggest he is a good guy, but he still looks like a clever schoolboy to me. I found Whitaker as Amin almost impossible to take. The IMDB entry on the film carries several interesting comments (and several stupid ones) and one young viewer suggests that the film worked precisely because he had no knowledge of Amin at all. Therefore the gradual revelation was very effective. I remember Amin very well and he wasn't funny (although he was certainly widely satirised, I think).

I'll have to give the film another go at a later date. The same goes for Hotel Rwanda.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Losing the plot


I really wanted to like Grow Your Own, a British film supported by the UK Film Council which received a decent release, but attracted generally sparse audiences.

It features two ingredients I'm passionate about -- the treatment of refugees and the allotment movement -- and it's written, in part at least, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Boyce is one of the most respected scriptwriters in the UK and he has produced great scripts for Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle. His name on the credits was certainly what attracted me, alongside a strong cast. According to the attractive, but over-designed, website for the film, originally the story was going to be a documentary. The idea came from the experience of asylum seekers from Kosovo and Angola who were offered the chance to work on their own allotments in Liverpool as part of a scheme set up by a psychotherapist. Because asylum seekers can't take paid work, the chance to work on the allotment gives them a focus.

The script for the feature film includes the stories of three families of asylum seekers and the initial hostility they face from the local allotment-holders. I think these stories are strong and a moving drama could have been the result. Unfortunately, what finally emerged was a meld of the emotional drama and a rather tired and silly social comedy which to me seemed like a throwback to Ealing in the predictability of much of the action. Boyce says in the Production Notes that he wanted to give it a 'Bill Forsyth feel'. I think I can see why he thought this would work and there is a quirkiness about the set-up which could be developed in ways similar to Comfort and Joy (1984). However, such a strategy would need a highly skilled and sensitive director and Richard Laxton is a TV director with just one feature credit -- the critically derided Life and Lyrics (2006). I haven't seen anything else by this director, so it would be unfair to judge him on this film. Intriguingly the film was shot in CinemaScope and features an unusual colour palette (painting the sheds on the allotment is a plot feature). In fact, the setting in Liverpool is visually striking and unusual with lots of potential.

I don't really understand what went wrong. The co-writer Carl Hunter from the Liverpool band The Farm had the original idea and he was also a producer. I can only assume that someone lost their nerve in allowing the comic elements to become dominant. The central relationship between a South Chinese family group and an ex merchant seaman on an adjacent plot has all the elements for great drama (including black comedy), but it isn't allowed to develop. At one point the script even clumsily spells out what has happened in dialogue -- even though we have already begun to understand events through the sensitive performance by Benedict Wong.

There are plenty of good things in the film and I laughed several times, but overall I just felt it didn't hang together -- the music wasn't well used either). I hope Frank Cottrell Boyce bounces back soon.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Tamil film in the UK Top Ten

The Top 10 films in the UK for the weekend of June 16/17 included two Indian films. At No 6 the Hindi film Jhoom Barabar Jhoom registered a screen average of over £5,000 from 47 screens. There is nothing unusual about this as Hindi films regularly feature in the Top 10. However, at No 9 Sivaji represents what I think is the first Tamil (i.e. 'made in Chennai') film to register. Not only is it in the Top 10, but from only 12 screens with a screen average of over £14,000 it was easily the best earner of the weekend, beating all the Hollywood blockbusters. I rate this the most surprising result I've seen in many years of logging the chart.

Sivaji stars the veteran (57 year-old) superstar Rajnikanth in a story about a software engineer who returns from America to attempt to set up a hospital for the poor. IMDB lists the film as being partly shot in all four South Indian languages: Tamil, Kannada, Telegu and Malayalam. Distributor Ayngaran is the only outlet for South Indian movies in the UK and it must be delighted by its success, which as far as I can see is based on screenings in Cineworld cinemas in London. I confess that the movie sounds like it will not necessarily be attractive to UK audiences not steeped in South Indian culture and it is possibly not subtitled. Nevertheless, this is a breakthrough in revealing to UK film pundits that actually South India produces more films and sometimes has bigger audiences than the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai (i.e. 'Bollywood').

Sivaji opened in 15 territories worldwide and the diaspora audiences in Malaysia and elsewhere propelled to number 15 in Screen International's worldwide chart.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Mani Ratnam's Yuva

Somehow, I found the time to watch one of the Mani Ratnam films I'd collected. Yuva (2004) represents something that used to happen in European Cinema in the 1920s and early 1930s quite regularly, but only rarely since – the same script made almost simultaneously in two different languages with different actors. Yuva is the Hindi version of a Tamil film produced by Ratnam's Madras Talkies. An accident delayed shooting on one film and both versions ended up opening on the same day.

The Hindi version did make it to the UK but I missed it. I found a DVD on the Lovefilm rental site. It's a poor quality DVD with a low resolution image, poor sound and dreadful English subtitles – not only with woeful spelling and grammar, but also out of synch with the images. It's very difficult to work out who is saying what to whom. The fact that I still enjoyed the film very much is a tribute to the professionalism of the creative team.

Yuva is an important film for several reasons -- even though it seems to have flopped at the box office. The title refers to 'youth', I think, though the youngest of the lead actors was about 26 in 2004. The story involves the chance meeting of three men on the Howrah Bridge in Kolkotta. As with his earlier film, Alai Payuthey (2000), the opening incident then moves into flashback to tell the stories behind the meetings before returning to the 'present' for the last hour (160 mins movie). The three men represent different class positions and different basic ideologies and the story focuses upon the attempts by student politicians to take a stand against a corrupt party machine. The great Om Puri, so well known in the UK, plays the politician villain to perfection.

The film is star studded, although I've seen comments that suggest that for Abhishek Bachchan, this film was very important since by accepting a 'heavy' role, he widened his range successfully. I did feel that the other actors were familiar, but it was only afterwards that I realised that three of them were in the Othello adaptation, Omkara (2006).

There is a great deal of violence in the film and the finale is rather cartoon-like. However, the violence is necessary, I think, and I thought Bachchan made an excellent villain. There are three aspects of the film I really liked. One was the political narrative and the way in which the script touched on what I take to be current political issues across India. The second was the range of songs and I loved the 'political' song sequence. Ratnam does seem to use song sequences differently than in mainstream Hindi films. Finally, it was just great to see a film set in Kolkotta. Several commentators have complained that only Om Puri managed a Bengali accent. I'm not equipped to spot that, but I appreciated the views of the city (although I noted that thanks went to Southern Railways, so I wondered how much footage was shot in Madras?). I realise that although over the years I have seen quite a few Bengali films, they have all been art films or 'parallel cinema' films. This was the first Hindi film I'd seen set in the city and it was good to see it soon after The Namesake. What a treat too to see trams and the metro as well as trains – Mani Ratnam's films seem full of scenes on public transport of all kinds as well as motorbikes and cars.

There is an interesting review of the film on this American university site, although I'm not sure that I totally agree with its analysis of the closing sequence of the film. It does seem odd that Ratnam chose to set the political narrative in West Bengal, although if he had to transpose it from the south, it probably makes more sense than placing it in other northern states. I suspect that I need to know much more about Bengali political parties to read the ending properly.

I'm going to try another Ratnam film soon.

Friday, June 15, 2007

British FIlm Institute writes to authors

On the same day this week, I received a copy of my new book, Understanding Audiences and the Film Industry, published by the BFI, and a copy of the 'FAQ' sent out by the BFI to authors. This explains the realignment policy in terms of the impact on Education Publishing. It says that internal consultation re the realignment will end on 22 June and attempts to reassure authors that their rights are ensured if the list is effectively sold/transferred to another agency.

So, I have a book, but some doubts about who might be trying to sell it. I also have six sets of teaching resources jointly published with BFI Education. Add to that, I've been a member of the BFI since the early 1970s. I am a trifle miffed that the first formal indication of what the BFI has in mind, should come at such a late stage. The BFI is a publicly-funded body and a national cultural agency. As far as I can see it is facing a genuine funding problem with a freeze on the monies it has received via the UK Film Council. The BFI Directorate certainly should be thinking about how to respond to this situation.

But, funding crises are nothing new and we've seen many before. The BFI has many partners in what it does to support film culture in the UK. Previous regimes have usually tried to explain their proposals to partners. This time around, it seems that decisions have been made without all the appropriate consultation discussions. Who knows, the BFI directorate may have learned something? Let's hope that the flurry of responses hitting the mailboxes at Stephen St. will have some positive results.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

BFI to write itself out of education?

The British Film Institute in its latest review looks as though it is set to move its publishing out to another agency. The concentration of bfi activities on its London venues, alongside a withdrawal from direct involvement in education publishing and DVD distribution is a serious blow to the further development of film and media education. The institute is putting more of its resources into its online presence, but can this be a substitute for what it once did in a more concrete way? Awareness of the plans of bfi director Amanda Nevill is now beginning to seep out to a wider constituency of film and media teachers thanks to actions by leading academics, co-ordinated via Meccsa. For detailed information, go to Prof. Pam Cook's recently launched blog, bfiwatch.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Going domestic in East Asia

In the week that Pirates of the Caribbean opened to record business on 17,500 screens in 102 territories, it's worth noting that it isn't all going Hollywood's way. In 2006, Japan and China joined India and South Korea as major territories in which the domestic film industry managed to achieve 50% of domestic box office. If you want to know what kinds of films these industries are producing, a good starting point is Leung Wing-Fai's review of the 2007 Far East Film Festival in Udine, which we are honoured to present on the in the picture website. Fai wasn't that impressed with what was on offer, but "telling it like it is" is part of her style. What's clear is that these industries function much like other commercial industries and we need to keep track of the range of their ouputs.

2007 looks like a good year for Hollywood, but it is increasingly looking towards East Asian markets -- the Pirates franchise brought in Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat for the latest instalment. The latest MPAA figures suggest that Hollywood's share of the global market has been falling. Partly this is because some territories are growing fast (e.g. Russia) and partly because the difficulties of collecting box office figures in many territories have led to an underestimation of some national totals. In 2006, MPAA quotes a global market for cinema of $25.8 billion with US on $9.49 billion and East Asia on $6.32 billion (an increase of 15% over 2005-6).

Helpless, helpless


"There is a town in North Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there."

k.d. lang sings Neil Young's words for 'Helpless' at the end of Sarah Polley's wonderful film Away From Her (a recording taken from her album of Canadian songs entitled 'Hymns of the 49th Parallel'). Young's words are powerfully suggestive of the emotions in the film and the cover of k.d. lang's album could be a still from the film.

I was certainly helpless from about twenty minutes in when I began to weep (possibly as the strains to 'Harvest Moon' started on the soundtrack) and couldn't stop throughout the rest of the film. I had approached the screening with much trepidation. Like most people my age I've had some experience of Alzheimer's disease in the family and the prospect of Julie Christie gradually deteriorating was worrying to say the least. But what I watched was a sensitive and moving story of a marriage which was not sentimental or romantic, but nevertheless optimistic.

On reflection, this is a film in which a quartet (or possibly a quintet) of women effectively help a man to come to terms with being parted from his partner of 44 years (i.e. being 'away from her'). Some of the women help with compassion, the care home manager is coldly (and irritatingly) efficient, another woman is 'plain talking'. The chief nurse is the compassionate one – but is also to the point in her criticism of him. And at the centre is Fiona (Julie Christie) devastatingly beautiful and knowing, even as her hold on memory unravels. The man, Grant (a great performance of bewilderment by the veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent), worries that she may be putting on an act -- and perhaps she is because she does manage to get him to question what he has done during the marriage.

I've read some interesting reviews, including one on the Village Voice website by Ella Taylor. I haven't see too many comments about the style of the film, except to suggest that it is 'conservative'. I think it is probably a good idea for a first time director to be cautious in presenting a story, so that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The overwhelming sense is of whiteness, blankness and cold, which seems appropriate. The only visual flourish I remember is the series of cross-fades which removes the visiting relatives from the dining tables in the care home -- an appropriate and effective device.

I don't think I've read any of Alice Munro's short stories (this film is adapted from 'The Bear Came Over the Mountain'), but this reminds me of other Canadian women writers. There is something of Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood in it -- and also something older and more Nordic (perhaps it's the landscape). Fiona is supposed to be from Icelandic stock and Grant reads to her from Auden and Louis MacNeice's book 'Letters from Iceland'. Trying to research those Canadian stories I've read (and regrettably forgotten) I came across Marjorie Anderson, an academic and author whose bio explains that she is of Icelandic fisher stock from a community on Lake Winnipeg -- a background which is presumably common in Manitoba and Ontario. There is something about the landscape of Ontario , the Protestantism, the Northern European culture, that creates a tone that you just don't find in American movies. It's evident in this film (in the landscape seen through the car windows and in the "brand spanking new" facility that is Meadowdale (or similarly horrible name for a care home)). I'm nudged to think of Cronenberg films like Crash, eXistenZ and A History of Violence (filmed in Canada). Anglophone Canadian Cinema is usually 'weird' -- but in a good way! This film is simply very good. I must watch more Canadian movies and I'll certainly be looking out for Sarah Polley, who sounds rather like Jodie Foster in beginning as a child star and making it to respected indy star and now acclaimed director at 27.

(The film was actually shot in Paris and Kitchener in Southern Ontario. My research turned up a literary genre which was new to me -- 'Southern Ontario Gothic'. This includes Munro and Atwood and also my favourite, Robertson Davies. It includes the elements I listed above and tends towards themes of moral hypocrisy according to Wikipedia. Isn't the internet wonderful? But why isn't anyone making movies based on Robertson Davies? I guess they would just be too 'weird'.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What's in a name?

I've rarely been so engaged by a film as I was by The Namesake. What I mean is, that I was at the same time enjoying the story and the characterisation, wishing I was in Calcutta, remembering visiting the Taj Mahal, reliving Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak films and occasionally being irritated by the American characters (and possibly cross because they seemed a little too much of a type when the central couple were so beautifully drawn).

There is something about Bengali Cinema which is irresistible and nearly always involves trains, the Ganges and the streets of Calcutta. But perhaps it is those thick black-rimmed spectacles that only Bengali intellectuals (and Buddy Holly) can wear and still look cool. All of these iconic signs are present in this film and its much the better for their inclusion -- the first section of the film is wonderful. This was my introduction to Tabu and I wish I'd seen her before. (I've subsequently realised that I have seen her before in the wonderful Tamil adaptation of Sense and Sensibility under the title Kandukondain, Kandukondain, 2000) Now that I've discovered that she is the niece of Shabana Azmi, I'll be looking out for her. Irrfan Khan as the father is also very good and I hadn't recognised him from The Warrior.

I guess on reflection that I enjoyed the American scenes between the son and his partners slightly less than those featuring the parents, but overall the story held my attention (and Zuleikha Robinson is an actor well worth keeping tabs on). I've read a couple of fairly damning reviews of Kal Penn's performance as the son and I'm afraid I'd probably agree that his character was the weakest element of the film. On a simple structural level, Mira Nair did well to handle what was almost a family saga on a limited budget and within the boundaries of quite a small and intimate film.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Zhang's Yellow Chrysanthemums


I've always associated Chrysants with Japan, so it was a surprise to see thousands of them in The Curse of the Golden Flower.

I went into this screening not knowing what to expect. I'd seen the trailer and got a sense of lukewarm reviews, but neither really prepared me for the film. I shouldn't be surprised that I was very taken with it -- after all, I've never been really disappointed with one of Zhang's films. He remains for me one of the top players in the premier league, whatever political confusions his films create.

The first task in responding to the film is to try to categorise it. Despite the use of the term by several critics, I don't think the film is a wu xia, at least not in the sense that I have understood the term. The main characters are not warriors following the code of a dedicated master and displaying 'super skills'. There are opera techniques in the fight scenes, which are choreographed on an epic scale, but not with the romantic intensity that ran through Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Instead, I think that this is melodrama/opera with clear links to European/Indian/Japanese films/theatre.

In terms of melodrama, I've never seen this use of colour in anything else (I saw a digital print and the effect of slightly different contrast and shades might mean the 35mm print looks more familiar). Zhang does it again, I guess. The music was the only problem for me. By the end of the film I'd got used to it, but earlier it just didn't seem to fit.

Above all, the film offered two pleasures I hadn't ever imagined I would see, the return of Gong Li to a Zhang Yimou film and the chance to see Li and Chow Yun-fat together. I could have done without all the thrusting bosoms, but Gong Li's wonderful face drew my attention all the time. If the film isn't really the third film in a trilogy, it might just be a return to Zhang's first trilogy (and indeed his first Gong Li trilogy). The film that Curse of the Golden Flower most reminded me of is Raise the Red Lantern. The Gong Li character is proud, haughty and independent, plotting to achieve some power for herself but finally defeated by the implacable nature of patriarchy in Imperial China, just as she was in the earlier film. No doubt the China watchers in the West and in China itself are working on readings. I did think of the Tiananman Square massacre and I could see the film as a critique of both patriarchy and the internal plotting of the ruling elite. On the other hand, Chow Yun-fat's Emperor has risen up from a relatively lowly position to assume power and he intends to keep it. Perhaps Zhang secretly wants to celebrate this? As usual the posters on the IMDB bulletin boards are claiming the film as 'communist propaganda'. You takes your choice. I want to know why I'm not getting to see the film Zhang made before this, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. UK distribs please note.