Posts Tagged ‘film’

Purple Rose of Cairo

Posted 09 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

Finally got round to watching an absolute gem of a Woody Allen film which I had somehow, ‘til now, neglected – his marvellous, insightful 1985 comedy ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’. A lovely meditation on cinematic escapism, it sees Mia Farrow seduced by an actor who steps out of the Big Screen and into the drudgery of her Depression era life. Like the best Woody Allen films, it is simultaneously slight and vibrating with unforced, illuminating insights. Similar in tone and mood – though much more completely realised – to last year’s excellent ‘Midnight In Paris’, this has rocketed into my top 5 Woody films, easy. Great stuff – really recommend this one.


How To Be Creative

Posted 07 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category General

A little late flagging this one up, but The Guardian published a lovely feature at the start of last week titled ‘Top artists reveal how to find creative inspiration’, which was exactly that – a number of people from the creative arts sharing tips on how to be more productive, thoughtful and free in the pursuit of creativity. I found pretty much all of them fascinating, but I was particularly interested in the tips presented by Lucy Prebble, who as a playwright and scriptwriter presented a series of very basic tips which I wish I had read before I wrote my first screenplay last year. But most of all I liked her tips because they resonated. I’m not sure which tips I’d pen if I had to try to share insights from my own attempts at creative stuff – perhaps I’ll see if there’s anything worth sharing when I get a bit of time.

In the meantime, here are Lucy’s suggestions – do click through to read the whole piece, though; with contributions from the likes of Lucy, Guy Garvey, Martin Parr, Martha Wainwright and Olivia Williams, there’s loads of valuable stuff.

• Act it out yourself. Draw the curtains.

• If ever a character asks another character, "What do you mean?", the scene needs a rewrite.

• Feeling intimidated is a good sign. Writing from a place of safety produces stuff that is at best dull and at worst dishonest.

• It’s OK to use friends and lovers in your work. They are curiously flattered.

• Imagine the stage, not the location.

• Write backwards. Start from the feeling you want the audience to have at the end and then ask "How might that happen?" continually, until you have a beginning.

• Reveal yourself in your writing, especially the bits you don’t like.

• Accept that, as a result, people you don’t know won’t like you.

• Try not to give characters jobs that really only appear in plays; the deliberately idiosyncratic (eg "the guy who changes the posters on huge billboards at night") or the solipsistic (eg "writer").

• Write about what you don’t know. If you know what you think about something, you can say so in a sentence – it doesn’t take a play.

• An apparently intractable narrative problem is often its own solution if you dramatise the conflict it contains.

• Surround yourself with people who don’t mind you being a bit absent and a bit flakey.

• Be nice to them. They put up with a lot.

• Break any rule if you know deep inside that it is important.


Lucy Prebble taking the applause at a performance of her Enron, The Play.

Wuthering Heights, review (and a bit on M. Amis)

Posted 25 Nov 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

Just read an an interesting article by Martin Amis, where he posits that:

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less.

He makes some valid points – it’s hard, even for ardent admirers of a particular author, to argue that every work is of equal standing, and there’s something slightly false, I suppose, about insisting that we judge Shakespeare only on the standard of his very greatest plays. But I’m not sure that Amis’s point isn’t somewhat of an oversimplification – granted one cannot love every work equally, but being able to rank them according to their quality does not been cutting the less loved adrift simply because others are more perfect. I think that Amis’s ‘The Rachel Papers’ is a terrific book – the fact that ‘Money’ is much better does not prevent me loving both.

(That said, I decidedy don’t love ‘Night Train’, ‘Yellow Dog’ or ‘The Information’, – few do – so perhaps Amis’ conceit is self-serving. It would certainly provide a happy explanation as to why so few people profess to like only 50% of his backlist – rather than admitting to an observable decline in quality only partially remedied by ‘The Pregnant Widow’. I’m being mean – Amis is wonderful).

Good writing is not a race, anyway, and there are no winners or losers, unless you care who wins the Booker prize. Nevertheless, for me Amis does get a couple of things right – not all Don DeLillo’s stuff is as good as ‘White Noise’ or ‘Libra’ (‘Underworld’ certainly isn’t – bravura opening apart what a chore that book was, for all the hype) and ‘Middlemarch’, despite being Eliot’s only great book, is indeed the central Anglophone novel – certainly the one I judge all others against. We part, however, Martin and I, over Jane Austen; not in the sense that we don’t both love her, but in that he attributes flaws to ‘Persuasion’ – which is madness, and that’s the end of it.

Talking of classics, It’s such a long time since I read ‘Wuthering Heights’ that my memories of it are somewhat hazy, and I suspect not entirely to be trusted – I was an ardent admirer as a young teenager of ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, which gives some indication of my tastes. I remember liking Bronte’s book very much at the time, although I didn’t react as strongly as many of my peers – and like most I felt conflicted about Heathcliff without actually finding it very difficult to hate him.

Andrea Arnold’s new film adaptation of WH, starring Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave, aims to put that right by centring on Heathcliff’s perspective, reframing his behaviour in light of nature vs. nurture, and rendering his actions explicable in that context. It’s beautifully shot in 16mm (and framed in 4:3) and the first half was absolutely bewitching.

For all that Arnold (who previously directed the remarkable Red Road and lovely Fish Tank) is thought of as an art-house director, she has made a very unpretentious Wuthering Heights (far less self conscious than Jane Campion’s Keats flick, Bright Star) which makes full use of the dank, dark Yorkshire moors. It only fails, sadly, when she hands over to adult leads, asking James Howson and Kaya Scodelario to cary the final third having done precious little to establish a sympathetic relationship with the audience (meaning that the empathy which Glave earned as a troubled, far-from-home Heathcliff is largely squandered). It’s a shame that a film so visually arresting and beautifully mapped should fall apart on the back of a very odd decision (to replace two actors in their late teens with two in their early 20s), and instructive to note that even a plot as violently emotional as Wuthering Heights turns mawkish when you don’t have a feel for the characters.

Again, this is strictly a criticism of the last third – the scenes featuring the younger actors were hugely involving, but in Howson and Scodelario’s scenes I was reminded of the interminable yelling-into-the-wind scenes which blighted another recent big screen period drama – Anh Hung Tran’s emo take on Murakami’s Norweigan Wood. A shame – but not one which, ultimately, subtracts too much from the film; by the time the actors hand over you’ve already seen a brilliant production and, seeing as Arnold made the decision to only film 50% of the novel, I see no reason why I can’t draw a veil over a slightly underwhelming ending. If Amis is only taking 50% of Austen, I can take 50% of this.

Arnold is a very special director, and at the very least, she’s made me want to re-read Wuthering Heights, and re-assess Heathcliff, that old and compelling enigma.

Questions, flops, miracles

Posted 25 Aug 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Daft, General, Technology

This is rather lovely. Over on Quora someone asked, ‘What’s it like to have your film flop at the box office?’. Sean Hood, the professional screenwriter who wrote the last iteration of the Conan The Barbarian franchise, is well placed to answer. So he does.

In the days before the release, you get all sorts of enthusiastic congratulations from friends and family. Everyone seems to believe it will go well, and everyone has something positive to say, so you allow yourself to get swept up in it.

You tell yourself to just enjoy the process. That whether you succeed or fail, win or lose, it will be fine. You pretend to be Zen. You adopt detachment, and ironic humor, while secretly praying for a miracle.

The Friday night of the release is like the Tuesday night of an election. “Exit polls”are taken of people leaving the theater, and estimated box office numbers start leaking out in the afternoon, like early ballot returns. You are glued to your computer, clicking wildly over websites, chatting nonstop with peers, and calling anyone and everyone to find out what they’ve heard. Have any numbers come back yet? That’s when your stomach starts to drop.

It’s a great read – click here to access the whole thing.

Meanwhile – that’s not the only difficult question the internet can answer.

Review; Submarine by Richard Ayoade

Posted 09 Dec 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews, Share

Richard Ayoade’s debut feature, Submarine, doesn’t get a general release ’til March 18th, but it premiered in the UK at Brighton’s Cinecity film festival last week, and you will doubtless hear much of it in the months leading up to its launch. This is partly, unavoidably, due to the high profile of its writer and director – the likeable Ayoade’s turns in The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh might not have turned him into a household name, but he is well known and highly thought of. His work behind the camera is less trumpeted, but he’s shot a number of fine music videos and his career highlight, in fact, might be his work as director of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.

Submarine will surely be a big success. Everything is surely in place for it to be a hit. It has a star director, a series of great performances, is genuinely funny and is, technically, light years ahead of most UK attempts to crack the box-office. It’s wonderfully shot and crisply edited, well-cast and tightly scripted. And the theme is likely to resonate too; a young, bright, self-aware – but awkward, emotionally clumsy – teenage boy comes of age in a faintly timeless Welsh town. As a first feature, it’s sure-footed and well-judged.

What will also happen, however, is the reviews will tilt under the weight of references and comparisons. For better or for worse, deliberately or by accident, Ayoade has made a film which fits neatly into the genre of comedy mastered in recent years by a succession of independent film auteurs in movies like Rushmore, Juno, Napoloeon Dynamite and Son of Rambow. This is both a strength – they’re all fine films – and a weakness – like them, Submarine is literate, sardonic, nostalgic and – at times – a bit self-indulgent.

The Wes Anderson comparisons will flow freely. At times, Ayoade’s style, which is heavy on cinematic grammar, does indeed recall Anderson, although happily it’s Rushmore that Submarine reminds me of, not Anderson’s later, weaker work, and one could very easily argue that Ayoade is thematically and stylistically harking back further, to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude. It wasn’t Anderson, after all, who first hit on the idea of quirky, stylised comedy with folk-music soundtracks (Alex Turner, incidentally, drops the ball with his clumsy sounding musical accompaniement.)

Nevertheless, there are times when you wonder why, when Ayoade watched the rushes back, he didn’t think to himself, “if I took out all the bits that are going to really remind people of Wes Anderson, I’d still have a pretty great film”. He left them in, no doubt, because there is a confluence of style and theme which is a happy and genuine co-incidence. But the whimsy is cosmetic – in other words it spices up the visuals but adds nothing to the story – and I for one have had enough of this celluloid twee-ness. It bit into my enjoyment of an otherwise super film.

But let’s give it some deserved praise. First, the cinematography is gorgeous. Ayoade repeatedly returns to the huge expanses of sky around Cardiff, and the lingering landscapes are intensely memorable. He’s also found a couple of great leads – the youngsters, Yasmin Paige and Craig Roberts perform with confidence and style, while the adult cast perform with such evident pleasure that one almost feels short-changed that they only have supporting roles. It’s hard to think of a couple of better performances in a comedy film than Noah Taylor’s Lloyd Tate and Sally Hawkin’s wonderful portrayal of his wife, Jill. Meanwhile, overacting gleefully, Paddy Considine has tremendous fun, as he always seems to.

And most importantly, despite the irritating and sometimes arch narration, Ayoade makes a serious attempt to inject emotion into proceedings, something that Wes Anderson never seems to bother with. It’s only sporadically successful (there’s still a layer of irony that impedes empathy) but the attempt alone sets the film apart from many of the titles it will be compared to. This that bodes most well for its youthful director. There’s absolutely enough to suggest, here, that Ayoade could go on to be a really super film-maker. It does sometimes become necessary, however, to carve out one’s own approach, and just now you feel there’s too many nods at other movies and not quite enough pushing ahead alone.

After the premiere, Noah Taylor – exquisite as Oliver’s dad – stayed behind to talk about the film (which he had just seen for the first time), his career to date and cinema in general. It was absorbing stuff – and luckily I taped it. So if you’re interested in hearing a bit more about the film, you can catch up below. The talk is, I think, spoiler free.

Noah Taylor talks about Richard Ayoade’s ‘Submarine’, Brighton, Dec 2010 by assistantblog

Dance dance dance

Posted 07 Sep 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General

I could never tire of this – think it’s my favourite film scene ever.

Inception review

Posted 23 Jul 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

Okay, so I really hated Inception. I tried to write a serious, high minded review, explaining why I found it so terribly disappointing despite not expecting – or wanting – a serious, high minded film. But the truth is, I’ve hardly anything to say, except that the film is a big waste of time. The concept – not a bad one – is that Leonardo DiCaprio and his colleagues engage in surreptitious espionage by digging for secrets in the subconscious of their dreaming victims. This makes for some dizzying, Escher inspired sequences exploring the architecture of dreams.  

But the plot, rather than the concept, is the problem. They’re not governmental spies, working on eliminating terrorism, or ethical bandits, fighting corruption. They’re hackers taking payment from multinational corporations trying to secure competitive advantage. They’re totally corrupt and untroubled by conscience, in other words. Their job – and the entire plot of the film – is to help one energy company get dominance over another. And the characters are portrayed utterly without characterisation and, for every character except DiCaprio’s, without the slightest thought for articulating their motivation. What this means, in practical terms, is that there’s absolutely no reason to root for them or their success except out of a vague curiosity in seeing how they do it.

And that’s all there is. This drastically overlong, visually stunning but hypnotically shallow movie watches like a sequence of expensive car commercials glued together with interminable, tedious action scenes. The imaginative quality of the dreamscapes is initially intriguing but is all but abandoned in the second half, with a long, unforgivably boring section in a winter landscape having no relationship whatsoever with the notion that poor Ellen Page’s character supposed to be an architect of complex maps, not of airy destinations for the Winter Olympics. It’s staggeringly badly thought out, like Nolan just cut a big section from an early 80s Bond film and plonked it in the middle of his edit.

Worst of all, Inception fails to deliver on two of it’s central promises. It isn’t complex at all, or at least, not in the sense intended (the unintentionally funny script does introduce a few moments of confusion, at least) and it isn’t in the least bit exciting. I enjoyed the first hour but was yawning compulsively from that point on, unable to focus on the endless shoot out scenes or the hilariously drippy sub-plot. The visuals are, admittedly, pretty great, but the glossy look is utterly without texture, like an American Express commercial. Meanwhile, long after I stopped caring about the characters or the (absence of) plot I was unable to enjoy it as a spectacle because of the endless, booming score, which underpins not only every chase scene but every scrap of dialogue. For a film sold on it’s conceptual innovation, there’s not a single moment of space for reflection or thought. And yet it’s so long.

So, I know the reviews have been good, but this big, glossy piece of shit was the most boring, shallow, pretentious, badly executed and inane film I’ve seen in ages. Avoid it.

Film poster design

Posted 27 Mar 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General

I’m a keen reader of Joe Bowman’s Fin De Cinema blog, which is written with such devotion by someone so immersed in their area of interest that I feel a kind of sad envy; I’m not able to concentrate on one thing in sufficient detail and am doomed, I think, to flit from one interest to the next, mastering nothing. If you want to know what is happening in World Cinema, click the link above and benefit from all the time and energy which Joe puts in.

Being immersed in the Film world as he is, it’s about more than just sitting in front of a TV and DVD player, and Joe’s recent attendance of the Berlin Film Festival yielded some fascinating images, as he made a point of collating and publishing all the posters for the films featured, both for reissues and new releases. His posts reminded me how powerful good poster design can be.

Here, then, are a few attractive ones I picked out.

precious, a film by lee daniels

Posted 21 Feb 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

I watched Precious, today, the second feature by Lee Daniels, and was very impressed, if upset, by its grim, unflinching portrayal of domestic abuse in 1980s Harlem. It’s only Daniels second film, although he is an established name in Hollywood, having produced both the excellent ‘The Woodsman’ – a hard, affecting film about a convicted paedophile – and the execrable ‘Monster’s Ball’, a condescending, unpleasant film about ‘black America’. Here, aided by some excellent casting and several terrific performances, he has crafted a film which is alternately painful to watch, surprisingly heart-warming, and very funny.

It’s the severity of the circumstances his young lead must face that resonate most strongly. Precious, an impassive, obese 16 year old who is pregnant for the second time by her own father, is played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe with real depth and significant restraint, and entirely fulfils her role in a film where appalling events are threaded routinely into the plot. The comedian Mo’Nique, who plays her mother, is even more impressive, bringing a nightmarish intensity to her portrayal of one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve ever seen in celluloid. In addition, there is good work by a (slightly too-good-to-be-true) Paula Patten and Mariah Carey, whose hard, ambiguous social worker is central to the film’s (ultimately hopeful, despite everything) climax.

At times, particularly when Mo’Nique is inflicting shocking abuse on her screen daughter, it’s terribly hard to watch. To leaven the horror, Daniels provides a hopeful subplot which lauds the role of the state in protecting its most put-upon citizens, and it’s for the best that he does, else the film might be unwatchable. At times the contrast between these two strands seems a little unbelievable, but it is a necessary plot device. As in both Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, however, there are some ambiguous moral lessons. In The Woodsman, vigilantism is presented in a strangely uncritical light, and in Precious it’s hard not to notice that every character who lines up to help Precious (and thankfully there are several) seem to have progressively lighter skin.

Her relationship with Patten – who plays her teacher and mentor – is touching and convincing; but at times it feels that Patten is a little too good to be true; an impeccably groomed, comfortable liberal – she seems remarkably unfrazzled for an inner city teacher. Indeed, her class – supposedly made up of Harlem’s most troubled teenagers – seems at times to resemble the kids from Fame.

This is nitpicking – there are great performances here, and it’s very difficult not to be upset, moved, and exhausted by the film. It’s a great success and Mo’Nique, for one, might feel unfairly cast aside if she doesn’t pick up an Oscar for her role. I hope that the intolerable life young Precious is handed in 80s Harlem is a historical observation, and that things are better for America’s poor today.

top ten films of 2009

Posted 07 Feb 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Uncategorized

Observant readers will notice that I never got round to posting my 2009 lists – records of the year etc. Not quite sure why – I spent ages working out my top tens and exhausted my interest, I think. I’ll dig the music list out and post it this week. In the meantime, a bit late, here are my top ten films of 2009. Thoughts in the comments box, please.

Best Films of 2009, in order.
1. An Education (UK)
Utterly charmed by this – everything from the sensitive adaptation to the casting to the period detail was exquisitely done – Carey Mulligan in the lead role acted with incredible subtlety and charm. A beautiful, fascinating film.
2. Fish Tank (UK)
Very unfortunate not to be first in the list, I thought this was terrific, too – another beautifully realised film with a captivating central performance. Here’s a link to my more detailed review.
3. Let The Right One In (Sweden)
The thought of the US remake of this perfect film fills me with, well, horror – I just can’t understand the decision to remake a film which is so beautiful, accessible and chilling. An unexpected, complex reworking of the Vampire myth. One of only two films in the list I’ve seen twice, and it impressed even further on the second view. I’d happily watch it a third time.
4. Moon (UK)
A film that really stayed with me – Sam Rockwell is perfect in the central role(s) and this is a brilliantly realised bit of unsettling science fiction. And yet another promising new director in Duncan Jones. Upsetting and brilliant. Here’s my review – I got told off for including spoilers, so read with caution.
5. A Prophet (France)
Pretty much as good as everyone says it is – where this film really impressed me was in its dual portrayal of toughness and sensitivity. It has the weight of the great gangster films, with a thoughtful metaphysical component.
6. Thirst (S. Korea)
What with True Blood, Let the Right One in and the wonderful Being Human on the BBC, as well as the many other vampire franchises in operation, one would be forgiven for taking a pass on yet another film about people who bite people. But Thirst was brilliant. Totally repositioning the Priest’s role in the Vampire story, this was great stuff.
7. In The Loop (UK)
Do you know, I was a touch underwhelmed by this the first time I saw it, finding it a bit less funny than I was expecting and mostly concentrating on the furious final third. But I’ve seen it since and thought it much better on a second viewing. A case of it’s funny ‘cos it’s true, perhaps.
8. Star Trek (US)
So much better than it had any right to be. Mystifying middle section apart, this was awesome fun.
9. Down Terrace (UK)
Not sure if this has had a general release yet, but this very dark, low-key comedy is a gangster flick set in Brighton. Somewhere between Mike Leigh and The Sopranos, it was quite brilliant, and genuinely shocking in places.
10. Helen (UK)
Not sure if I actually enjoyed this, but I admired it for its simplicity and purity – a strange, unsatisfying meditation on identity – it’s well worth a look.

Obviously there’s a bunch I didn’t see (Avatar, The White Ribbon, The Antichrist, 35 Shots of Rum) that might have made the list, but as I didn’t see ‘em…

jonathan ross and mark kermode

Posted 08 Jan 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General

Do I care that Jonathan Ross is leaving the BBC? Well, of course not, given that I hardly ever watched or listened to his programmes, but I mind a little in the sense that the baying, myopic tabloids which made such a prolonged and nauseous protest against him have been handed their victory.

I actually think that Ross is a very talented and likable presenter – although by no means flawless – and he has been treated very shabbily by the BBC over the last couple of years. He should have walked when they made him pre-record his radio show.

Either way, his parting does create one point of interest – and that is whether the BBC will appoint the one obvious, deeply intelligent, stand-out candidate to replace him on Film 2010 or, well, or someone that isn’t Mark Kermode. He would be a fabulous appointment – he’s already responsible for one of the best podcasts, if not the the best, that the BBC make, and would, I suspect, immediately transform BBC1′s flagship film programme from something I never watch, to one of the best programmes on TV. I hope they do it.

the london perambulator

Posted 06 Dec 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews, Share

A couple of weeks ago myself, Vic, Dan, Ant and Alec went down to the Sallis Benney Theatre to see the screening, as part of the Cinecity Brighton Film Festival, of John Rogers’ new film, London Perambulator, a wonderfully affectionate portrait of Nick Papadimitriou, a writer who lives in North London – in my old haunting ground of Barnet, no less – who dedicates his life to the pursuit of what he calls ‘deep topography’; what you and I might have heard described as ‘pyscho-geography’ – urban exploration through the medium of walking, enacted not through pre-researched routes but by chance and happenstance, working on the assumption that the mysteries of the landscape will be revealed through being ‘found’.

As that muddled definition implies, the practice of deep topography is an inexact thing, occupying a vague, semi-mystical space between geography, anthropology, philosophy, art and science. What Nick Papadimitriou does, essentially, is walk through the overlooked corners of cities, and writes about his experience. His preoccupation is not with finding conventional beauty, whether ancient or modern, but rather in examining the functional areas where mankind, nature, and necessity overlap. In the process of this obsession, which sees him undertaking long ruminative walks, creating a kind of philosophical mind-map of the city, he has carried out research – and acted as somewhat of a poetic muse – for the likes of Will Self and Iain Sinclair (whose own book, ‘London Orbital’, sparked my interest in this area).

Papadimitriou is self-evidently an idiosyncratic individual, pursuing with admirable single-mindedness a line of enquiry which many would dismiss as eccentric. Rogers’ film cannot help but play on this, observing its protagonist in reveries of post-industrial romanticism, waxing lyrical over water treatment plants and manhole covers, standing rapt on brownfield sites transfixed by concrete posts. As one might expect of a close confidante of Will Self, Papadimitriou is not only incredibly literate but also extremely funny. So it’s easy for the film to poke affectionate fun at him, not least because a contributor like Russell Brand – who is insightful throughout – can’t resist sending him up.

Speaking after the film – which is only 45 minutes long – Papadimitriou expressed a little wry frustration at the fact. And that is understandable; there is something innately comic about the intensity of his passion for, say, Mogdon Water Treatment Plant – but the film plays up his eccentricity without sacrificing the opportunity to include many thought provoking and poetic displays of language and thought. And the more involved with his subject matter he gets the more profoundly interesting he becomes. It’s in Middlesex, that absent county at the top of London that was folded into Hertfordshire, Surrey and Greater London but which retains a geographical presence of its own, that his most fervent interest resides, and for a period in the film I found myself transported back to the vocabulary of my youth – Barnet, Southgate, Potters Bar, Finchley, Hendon. Papadimitriou is not myopic in his interests – he has a long term plan to walk across the Ukraine – but it’s obvious where his heart resides. He tells us:

“My ambition is to hold my region in my mind… so that I am the region. So that when I die I literally do become Middlesex in some way. For me that is my highest spiritual aspiration, I will be the tarmac that you race along on the A41-T, I’ll be absorbed into the mildewed lintels hidden in overgrown knotweed by the side of the Hendon way…”

My own youth was spent mapping out this part of the world; rambling through Hadley Wood, waiting for tubes into the city at Oakwood station, tracing cycle paths through Totteridge, scrabbling over high fences to let off firecrackers behind the Sainsbury’s car-park in New Barnet. I’m not especially nostalgic for those years, but Papadimitriou’s enthusiasm is infectious. I understood him best, I think, when he stopped suddenly between two semi-detached houses in a glum suburb, and pointed out the contour of the ageless landscape through the gap; where a river once flowed. These buildings, he pointed out, could be destroyed in moments, but it would take something immense to change the shape of land which has held its form for thousands of years.

I’m not sure I fully understand to what end his infectious, limitless enthusiasm can be taken, but in his current role, mid way between philosopher and naturalist, urban historian and dreamer, it strikes me that Nick Papadimitriou is doing something terribly important – chronicling parts of the city which are all around but rarely seen; liminal, overgrown, ambiguous places where mankind has made marks on nature which we would do well not to forget. Their unsystematic, unresolved, chaotic distribution seems to have some significance when counterbalanced against our own unsystematic, unresolved, chaotic lives.

You can watch a short clip of John Rogers’ incredibly enjoyable film below, visit his website here, or download the regular podcasts (“Ventures and Adventures in Topography”) which he and Nick make for Resonance FM here. Nick’s own website, misleadingly named Middlesex County Council, and as chaotic a site as you might expect, is essential reading. Here’s the link.

not tempted by avatar

Posted 22 Nov 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Uncategorized

Over on, they’re compiling evidence which points to the distinct possibility that James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ – which promises to be a revolution in film-making technology – will turn out to be a a big, queasy, sugary, 3D nightmare. Along with a few damning facts about the film, they provide a very early review from an industry insider, whose comments are wonderfully frank, culimating in the quite magnificent line, “Of course there are very beautiful moments, with great editing/sound/art direction, but overall it’s a horrible piece of shit.”

I had a ticket to see a preview taster of this film a couple of months back but something seemed wrong about it even then. Would be nice to be proved wrong, but I think this film is going to be really really bad.

Here’s the Gawker case for the prosecution.

fish tank, by andrea arnold; review

Posted 14 Oct 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

It’s a trite but accurate observation that good art is not just about how it makes you feel while you’re experiencing it, but also about how it stays with you. In the spirit of that, I keep returning to Fish Tank, the second film by Andrea Arnold, which I saw a month or so ago, and admiring the depth of its feeling, the power of the central characters’ performances, and the striking visuals of the cinematography. This makes me think I should have written about it here earlier – as much as anything so I could compare my thoughts then with my thoughts now, which feel like they have blossomed and deepened, but may merely be overpowering my memory as the details of the film recede. This is definitely a film I’ll return to when it comes out on DVD.

I remember the visuals more than anything; the way that Arnold has captured a landscape which, although it’s familiar to me from encountering it myself, feels alien and extraordinary in a cinematic context, consisting as it does of a sequence of extraordinary, vivid sunsets over the Essex countryside, intercut with scenes of industrial blight – pylons towering overhead and motorways ploughing through the fields. The film is set on the edge of London and at the start of the Essex countryside, so a strange urban/rural duality is presented. Mia, the central character, a bolshy and bright 15 year old, lives a bleak life in a tower block (although this itself in Arnold’s film is refreshingly free of cliché – there are no guns in this movie), and understandably dreams of escape. She is a dancer, although perhaps not one, like Billy Elliot, with a life-changing talent. As the title indicates, Mia is caged, looking for an escape. The fact that she can walk out of the city into the green fields, however, offers no respite until Michael Fassbender arrives in her life. He is Connor, her mother’s new boyfriend, and a surrogate father figure.

Mia – played with extraordinary believability by the newcomer Katie Jarvis – is in every frame, prowling through the landscape, her movements repetitive, purposeless and frustrated. Each day she sneaks out, argues with peers, circles the estate, and passes a patch of wasteland where travellers keep a horse tied up. Her movements echo that of a caged animal, listlessly circling, sniffing at the possibility of escape. Her outrage at the horse’s imprisonment is palpable – her own yearning for freedom just as obvious.

Her home life is thankless; her young mother is largely unconcerned with the duty of raising her two daughters, and Connor – who displays a sudden, unexpected interest in her life – offers something to which Mia is quite unused; encouragement, positive reinforcement, love. Mia has been excluded from school, and her mother echoes their analysis of her, that she is a nuisance, trouble, out of control. And there is another problem brewing; for all that Connor tries to nurture the girls, it is quickly apparent that Mia’s role as troubled daughter is complicated by her emergence as a sexual rival for a mother who, apart from when Fassbander is around, is stuck in the memory of her own teenage years.

Connor is as complex and fascinating a character as the young lead. Notably a bit better educated, a bit more gainfully employed, a bit more comfortable in his own skin than the men Mia’s mother normally sees, he nevertheless has his own troubles, and his complex relationship with Mia is just one of them. Their connection is apparent very early on. In one scene, Mia pretends to be asleep so that she can enjoy the feeling of his carrying her back to her room, and in another extraordinary set-piece, Connor takes the family out to the country, where he leads Mia into a fast flowing stream, leans over, and simply lifts a fish smoothly out of the water with his bare hands. It is an incredibly sensual scene, where electricity fizzes silently between the two characters, while Mia’s mother and sister look on, oblivious.

Mia can hardly be blamed for her feelings for Connor; living a life so shorn of encouragement and love, she is completely unprepared for her reaction when such things are offered. Connor represents freedom, adulthood, and escape. Her already profound spirit of rebellion is spurred, as is a heart-warming, uncynical appreciation of the more poetic side of life. There are some absolutely thrilling scenes when she dances.

For all that Mia blossoms with Connor’s encouragement, he is not the strong, centred man that he appears, and things swiftly get out of hand. Yet Arnold handles the development of the story beautifully, drawing wonderful things out of her young lead, and keeping such a tight hold of the reins that the final third of the film, again shot beautifully on the shores of the Thames Estuary, is completely surprising.

Fish Tank has been the best film I’ve seen this year, even better than Moon, which I praised very highly on this blog just a month or two ago. It’s a magnificent study of youthful disaffection, love and anger, beautifully controlled, shot in bewitching colours. And as I indicated, I’ve thought about it almost every day since I saw it –so I don’t think I could possibly recommend another film so heartily.

snow angels

Posted 10 Sep 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Daft

I’ve not seen his later films, but I’m a massive fan of the two early movies by the American writer and director, David Gordon GreenGeorge Washington and All The Real Girls (which I’ve written about before). Since those films Green has made a couple more indie pictures and a couple more which suggest he’s keen to move in to the mainstream: he’s currently making a stoner comedy starring Zooey Deschanel and Natalie Portman. Having lost track of his films somewhat, I just took a quick look at Wikipedia to see what I’ve missed, and noted that he made a film in 2006 called Snow Angels, starring Sam Rockwell (who was excellent in Moon) and Kate Beckinsale. Anyone seen it? Worth seeing?

Anyway, curious about it I just flicked over to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and read a few user comments. This one delighted me – I love it.

“The only problem I found with the movie was that its setting was a bit confusing. There were scenes where the characters used cell phones, and others where there were those record players for LPs. But other than that, the movie was flawless.”

Mobile Phones and record players. Can any of my clever readers solve this complex chronophysical puzzle?

moon, by duncan jones; review

Posted 30 Jul 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

I saw Moon tonight, the debut feature by Duncan Jones. Set in a familiar, dystopian future, it is what all the best science fiction films are; a slow, thoughtful examination of isolation. What could be more lonely than being sent to space, so far from the people who begat us? (Except perhaps to be living in a city – where far more science fiction films ought to be set).

Moon gives away it’s plotline early, so I have no compunction about revealing details, although I’ll try to hold something back, in case you’ve not seen it. Following in a great tradition of stories about identity and the self, it’s about doubles; Sam Rockwell – the beautifully calibrated lead – encounters no-one on his solitary posting on the moon – except himself. He’s there on the last leg of a solitary posting to oversee a mining operation which supplies Earth with 70% of it’s energy, alone but for a nostalgic portrait of a robot companion, voiced by Kevin Spacey (with more than a nod to HAL). And then an exact clone of himself arrives, ready to assume his post. Immediately he starts to disintegrate. And the process is painful and frightening to watch.

It must be hard being a first-time director. Everyone looks not only for evidence of genius but obsessively for immature flaws. So Moon has encountered its own doubling, its own dichotomy, in its reception. On the one hand, reviewers note, it’s an emphatic triumph – a mature, thoughtful science fiction film, a loving homage to a lost era of film-making and a triumph of art over budget. On the other hand, we read, Jones gives too much away, references too many forebears, doesn’t quite pull it off. Well – nonsense. I thought Moon was a perfectly weighted film, and a complex, haunting pleasure to watch.

Rockwell must take some of the credit. It’s unusual to see a film where one actor alone carries 99% of the screentime, and more unusual still to see him make such a success of carrying not one, but two, distinct characters. For although Rockwell plays two clones of the same character, he imbues each with their own identifiable strengths and weaknesses.

And this is what the film is really about. The first Sam, the dying ember, slowly approaching the end of his shift, is self-aware, rounded, complete. Three years in space have allowed him the time to resolve his conflicts, make peace with his demons. By the same token, the dynamism apparent in his younger clone is altogether gone – his lifeblood drained by his isolation. As the drama unfolds, we begin to wonder – is he resolved, or is he beaten? And is his younger, more aggressive, more impetuous self, his only hope of escape?

Few dystopias, of course, have happy endings. The question, here, is what hope has man in the face of corporations? Sam is only a commodity to be exploited. And only humanity can save us. When GERTY, Sam’s robot companion, first begins to exert his malign influence on his final days, we can see only the negative connotations of a computerised future. But soon GERTY, who is treated as a friend by Sam, begins to display not just emoticons – his screen displays them to denote texture to his monotone pronouncements – but real emotions, humanity is given a metaphorical shot in the arm. He helps propel Sam’s clone to the film’s semi-positive denouement. But we must be cautious; his sentience is sympathetic but not empathetic. Despite helping Sam, he declares himself happy to be re-booted, his memory wiped, the program to begin once again. Essentially, his ‘humanity’ is nothing more than a glitch in the program; albeit one that Sam is lucky to find, and exploit.

So perhaps this is the future – a future where we’re forced to look for holes in the system, glitches to exploit. Corporations, governments, mean only to exploit mankind. But humanity is ingenious, humanity is persistent. Jones never quite gives resolution, and the film is ultimately upsetting and bleak. But Rockwell’s Sam is so powerful, Jones’s direction so focused, that Moon can only inspire. A sad, loving, hopeful, defeated – and defiant film. Best thing I’ve seen in ages.

skinny jeans

Posted 29 Apr 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Observations

I was standing outside The Duke Of Yorks cinema in Brighton with Vic, shortly after watching ‘In The Loop’, the other day. We stood discussing the film, waiting for Andrew to join us. Dimly, somewhere behind me, I heard the beeping of a horn. I ignored it.

“I really thought it was great”, I said, “how the last half hour was so angry. It may not have been as funny as ‘The Thick Of It’, but it had much more energy”.

Beep Beep Beep. “Oi, mate”, I hear.

I continued prattling on. Vic fidgeted, bored of my critique, waiting for her brother.

“Oi”, the voice persists. “Oi! Skinny jeans!”

I turn around. Sat in a small hatchback are four laughing black guys. One is leaning out of the window and pointing at me.

“Aaaaahhh!” he shouts. “Skinny jeans, mate. Naaaaa…” He shakes his head. They all laugh.

Apparently my choice of trousers opens me up to a certain amount of ridicule.

tribeca film festival

Posted 09 Apr 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Uncategorized

Turns out I’m staying in TriBeCa the week before their big film festival, meaning that the area is buzzing with expectation, with lots of activity evident as people prepare for a week of premieres and parties. I’m annoyed I won’t be here – it looks really exciting. For those of you who like looking at these things from afar, rather than from just around the corner, here’s the programme. Why not imagine the films you’d see if you were here? That’s what I’m doing.

vicky christina barcelona

Posted 08 Apr 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

Thought I’d add a rather late voice of support to the apparent consensus that Woody Allen’s most recent film, Vicky Christina Barcelona, is a significant return to form and a rather good film. I watched it on the flight over to Boston and really enjoyed it, all the more because it seemed to have very little of the clunkiness of his ‘British’ films, and because, although the film’s setting in Spain is hardly essential to the plot, it makes for some beautiful shots and ingenious casting – particularly Javier Bardem and Penolope Cruz, who give magnificent performances.

The film, like most of Allen’s oeuvre, is concerned with the transitory, illusory – and yet essential – nature of love and relationships. Vicky and Christina, played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johannson respectively, spend a summer in Spain and fall under the spell of Bardem, who is a magnetic, fascinating artist painted initially as a womaniser but later sketched out into an appealing, sophisticated character. Christina, fascinated by Bardem and determined not to restricted by bourgeois or conventional expectations, embarks upon an impulsive but successful relationship with her lover and, later, his ex-wife, played with careering, reckless glee by Penelope Cruz. (Johannson, disappointingly, is below-par throughout).

Vicky, by contract – whose fascination with Bardem is tempered by her desire for a conventional marriage – is the real emotional centre of the film. For all the plaudits Cruz and Bardem have earned for their performances, it is Rebecca Hall’s beautiful, precise portrayal of Vicky’s cautious, agonised involvement which resonates. And which proves that Woody Allen is still capable of writing proper, grown up parts, and funny, worthwhile films.

Of course VCB is not up with his best, but it was the first one of his films I’ve seen in many years which left me feeling fully satisfied. Really hope it’s a good omen for his future projects.

review: waltz with bashir

Posted 05 Dec 2008 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Reviews

Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman’s excellent animated film, is a cool, deliberate and moving evocation of memory, conscience and war which moves from muted tones of yellow and black through luminous multicolour and back again as the director recounts the nightmarish reality of 1982s Israeli-Lebanon War, and his own efforts to reconstruct his recollection of it. Like thousands of men his age, his formative years were defined by his involvement in war, though both his own country and much of the Middle East which surround it – particularly Lebanon – have found themselves the staging ground for much of the world’s conflict since. At 19, be that as it may, he was sent to fight, and to kill. Yet he remembers little. What took place all those years ago?

Part autobiography, part fantasy, and part documentary, Waltz With Bashir is constructed from a series of flashbacks, hallucinations and interviews, all lovingly illustrated. Unable to piece together the details himself, Folman begins a long, painful search for the truth, finding people he served with, drawing out his own suppressed memories and interweaving them with those of his peers. The results are always beautifully drawn, but invariably upsetting; an officer forced to swim out to sea to escape capture by Palestinian forces; a troop trying in desperation to cross a junction while being fired on from all angles; the memory of six men having to gun down a child armed with a rocket launcher.

Worst is the darkest memory of all; Folman’s involvement in the massacres at Sabra and Chatila, where Phalangist Christians led Israeli forces into refugee camps and enacted a devastating genocide on the Palestinians within – murdering young and old, entire families lined up and shot under the yellow sky. As the film’s most devastating line attests, Folman, whose own parents survived Auschwitz, is made unwittingly to play the role of Nazi, firing flares into the sky so that the light persisted enough for the massacre to continue. At the apex of this savage injustice, the film switches not just from monochrome to full colour, but from animation to live video. The final, dreadful moments of the movie consist solely of archive footage of the terrible aftermath – wailing survivors surveying the destruction, the bodies of children poking horrifically from the rubble.

Despite the painful reality of these closing shots, the movie conjures up several arresting images of its own – an early sequence, which describes a memory experiment at a funfair, is echoed, in a moment of playfulness, through a window; a pack of dogs charge vengefully through the streets; a terrified soldier, cowering on a military boat, is provided with a moment’s respite by an erotic hallucination. The most powerful image is that of the auteur’s face, frozen in the streets of Beirut as he witnesses the carnage around him. It’s repeated several times; a slow pan around a youthful face, and gains in intensity with every viewing, until at last you learn something, something, of the atrocity of war. Waltz With Bashir is both chillingly upsetting and notably beautiful – a superb, troubling, and yet strangely cleansing film. Go see it.