Interview: Alex Gibney, director of ‘The Armstrong Lie’

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Matt Micucci talks to Alex Gibney about his documentary, The Armstrong Lie, and how it changed when, mid-way through shooting, the title hero was convicted of doping.
 

Can you tell us a little about the story?

The film is called The Armstrong Lie and it’s the story about Lance Armstrong, the cyclist. But it’s really about the anatomy of a lie. I followed him during his comeback tour in 2009 and almost completed a film about a guy coming back and showing that he could still win, but then everything came undone. I went back to watch the footage that I had shot to almost re-discover it in light of what we now know. It became an interesting process and I included myself as the character of the film.

 

Do you remember the specific moment when you found out you would have to change the whole film?

You know it didn’t happen all at once, like a lightning bolt where everything changed. There had been allegations about doping in the past but when in 2010 the first one of his former teammates Floyd Landis came forward and started naming names – that had never been done. And then Tyler Hamilton went on 60 Minutes and suddenly the US government was pursuing criminal charges, and all that detail made me realise that there was something a lot bigger going on. We’d better back off and wait for things to play out before we went back in. I think there was always a hope that we would be able to go back in at some point.

 

How did you convince Lance Armstrong to contribute directly and be interviewed in the new documentary?

I did get a call from him before his big interview with Oprah. We had spent a lot of time together and I think he was already trying to figure out how he was going to come forward. His story had become too unbelievable. So he called me up, told me that he had doped and he apologised for me for lying. I began to reckon with him and he told me it would have been nice for him to have sat down with me, since he had lied straight to my face, and tell me what really happened. So he said that he would do that. I was there for the Oprah interview, I shot my interview with him after Oprah and sat down with him again for about three hours this May.

 

Has he seen the film?

He hasn’t seen the film. I gave him the opportunity to. He sent his representatives to see it, so I don’t know what he thinks. The last time I talked to him was when I told him that the film was going to be called The Armstrong Lie

 

Was it difficult to get this film made?

Interestingly enough this film was pre-financed, it was Sony that actually came to me. So once Lance announced his comeback in 2008 and asked me if he wanted me to direct it I said yeah. The hard part was getting to go back in once we had finished the first film.

 

Was there any friction along the way?

You know, during the shooting of the first film we actually had screaming fights about how much of the doping stuff we would include because we always intended to include some of it. There had been incredible allegations and he just deflected all of them. One of my producers, Frank Marshall, was a real true believer. He believed that Lance Armstrong had never doped. So we always had a lot of arguments during the first film.

 

Looking at your whole body of work even before The Armstrong Lie, you certainly come across as the ultimate investigative reporter who is not afraid to change the structure of a film, or intended structure of a film, in order to expose the truth – no matter how uncomfortable. How do you live this mission of yours?

I end up doing a lot of films but it’s not because I do them quickly. Usually, I do a number of them at the same time, sometimes because you have to stop. Truth gathering does not go on an orderly schedule and it’s tough to persuade people to talk, particularly when it comes to talking about difficult subjects. The challenge in a lot of cases is to know that you’re not finished and you shouldn’t be finished because you haven’t quite gotten where you need to be. You keep pushing it until you get somebody to talk and tell you about something that happened, and that becomes a challenge.

 

You say the truth doesn’t come in an orderly manner. So how do you shape your films and how do you make the pace in them so exciting?

I usually have a kind of a rough sense, going in, of a rough structure that the piece will have. That having been said, overtime I have become more comfortable with throwing all that stuff out and starting over, and this would be a classic example. This required a completely different structure and actually the structure of this film is quite complicated because it involved going back and forth from the present to 2009 to 1999 and shifting perspective from a more distant one to a first person one. To get all that right was pretty complicated.

 

Click here for Sarah Griffin’s review of the film.

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Top 10 Festival Films: Torino Film Festival

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Matt Micucci picks his top 10 films from the 31st Torino Film Festival (22 – 30 November 2013).

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10 – Sweetwater (Sweet Vengeance) (Logan Miller, Noah Miller)

 

The Miller brothers put a stylised and even exaggerated spin on the all too often seen formula of the revenge film. Sweetwater  is, in fact, a blood triangle set in Western times between a super-villain religious fanatic, a free spirited renegade sheriff and a former prostitute angered by the murder of her husband. As a Western, it resembles much more the freshness of spaghetti ones then the classics of Americana.

 

The Millers bring their own personal stylistic touches that make Sweetwater an invigorating mix of violence and gore with the occasional laugh-out-loud comedy touch. The cast, particularly its lead players Ed Harris, Jason Isaacs and January Jones, plays along with the fun atmosphere of the film with some entertaining extravagant performances.

 

Some may find its eccentricity excessively annoying and slipping into parody, but there is no denying that Sweetwater is an enjoyable romp all the same.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Robert Rodriguez, 2003), I Do Not Forgive…I Kill! (Fedra West, Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent, 1968)

 

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9 – The Dismantling (Le Démantélement) (Sébastien Pilote)

Joining a small trend of films about farmers struggling to keep up their rural lifestyle in the 21st century, The Dismantling is the tale of a sheep farmer who chooses to sell his sheep farm that was handed down to him from his own father in order to come to the financial rescue of his daughter.

Despite the fact that this film may be seen as a man’s relentless descent into a self-inflicted unhappiness, this film is quite enjoyable and even crowd pleasing. This is not only because The Dismantling paints an interesting and intriguing domestic picture through wonderful photography that really treasures its countryside surroundings. It is also due to a great leading performance by Gabriel Arcand, who balances his character’s quietness with his own facial expressions that conceal benevolence, melancholia and unconditional love all at once. Furthermore, the sheep farmer is portrayed with an air of solemnity and heroism, as if he were a lone ranger alienated from the outside world and mighty in his struggles to fight back the fast paced urban modern way of living. This in turn leads us to wonder whether what we are seeing is the act of unconditional love of a father for his daughters or a sign of defeat of a man of older and outdated principles in this technological age – the latter point strengthened by a profound hostility towards an unwanted computer being brought to his house.

This core dilemma is quite troubling and the aforementioned descent culminates in an ending full of poetry and an unsettling contrasting joyful despondency, which fulfils the power of the intimate and sometimes even uncomfortable character study that is certainly worth the wait, even through its dead moments and a slow start.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – An Unfinished Life (Lasse Hallstrom, 2005), It’s All So Quiet (Boven is Het Stil, Nanouk Leopold, 2013)

 

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8 – Traffic Department (Drogówka) by Wojciech Smarzowski

Smarzowski takes a corrupt and immoral police traffic department as a starting point for his provocative thriller that comments heavily on social and political decadence as well as a total lack of violence. The central plot follows one of the members of the traffic department wrongly accused of a murder and desperately trying to clear his name. Doing so he unearths scandal upon scandal, from small community ones to ones of international scale.

While the plot would wrongly lead one to think it unoriginal, Traffic Department is very engaging and wilfully challenging, making use of sharp editing and shooting footage from different cameras from professional ones to iPhones. This leads to a jumbled jigsaw-like pace that induces and even forces the viewer to play an active part in the film and interact with it.

The conclusions it draws are shocking and confrontational as we witness a fundamental lack of morals and a natural lenience of the characters to vice, particularly with the seven main characters of the titular department with each one standing as a representative of each one of the seven deadly sins. Thought provoking and fearless but be warned – this is no work of light entertainment. Traffic Department is experimental and a film that could easily be classified as difficult, though it remarkably became the highest grossing film in Polish cinemas that year.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2003), The Wedding (Wesele, Wojciech Smarzowski, 2004)

 

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7 – Men Show Movies and Women Their Breasts (Manner zeigen Filme & Frauen ihre Bruste)(Isabell Suba)
 

Isabell Suba takes on sexual discrimination and film festival snobbery in her guerrilla filmmaking mockumentary that is among the most exciting and rebellious pieces of cinematic experiments of modern film.

After her own short was picked for Cannes, she sent an actress to pose as her and shot a film of her experiences as a filmmaker that comes to contact with the less glamorous side of the biggest and most talked about film festival of the year. Thus, this is how a huge opportunity ends up being a disappointment. Some of the conversations between the central characters of the director and producer drag and then there may be a whole argument about the relationship between the filmmaker and the producer being uncomfortable, as well as the individual characters being pretty stubborn and unlikable. But that is faithful to the realistic approach that Suba chooses to employ.

Interesting and captivating, as well as filled with compelling observations, Men Show Movies and Women Their Breast certainly makes its statement loud and clear.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe, 2002), Lenny Cooke (Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie, 2013)

 

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6 – Cycling with Moliére (Alceste á Bicyclette) (Philippe Le Guay)

Films about acting are rarely as delightful and mature as le Guay’s Cycling with Moliére. Here, in the French countryside, two actors battle it out for the role of Alceste in Moliére’s celebrated play The Misanthropes as they rehearse for an upcoming production.

The film works on many levels, with its underlying themes of passion and ego played tastefully and almost disguised with finesse under its reassuring chamber comedy approach that almost disguises the screenplay’s intelligence in its juxtaposition with Moliére’s work. Furthermore, everything is perfectly balanced, such as the comedy with the intimate portrayals of the characters that reveal a more compelling and dramatic side to Le Guay’s work.

Of course, it all would never have worked without its great leading performances, with Fabrice Luchini as the retired and disenchanted cynical actor who connects with the character of Alceste in a personal way delivering a particularly remarkable performance.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972), The Trouble With Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)

 

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5 – The Stone Roses: Made of Stone (Shane Meadows)

A documentary on the reunion of one of the biggest and most influential bands in modern music, The Stone Roses. Shane Meadows, who shot the film, brings his own passion to the table and allows his love of the fan to be a guiding light in the making of his documentary. The result is as infectious as the music and the energetic feel of the piece create an atmosphere of excitement that seems to genuinely represent the very same excitement that followed the news of a seemingly impossible reunion.

On top of that, The Stone Roses: Made of Stone allows an intimate behind the scene look at the band and looks at its history from another point of view. A truly remarkable stand out documentary as far as rock and roll music documentaries go, in the end it kind of comes down to the people’s personal tastes. Those who aren’t fans of the Roses will criticise Meadows for failing to restrain his own adoration of the band, while those who love the Roses will only be able to moan the absence of hits like Love Spreads in the soundtrack.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Shine a Light (Martin Scorsese, 2008), 24-Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)

 

4 – A Train to Moscow (Il Treno Vá a Mosca) (Federico Ferrone, Michele Manzolini)

A Train to Moscow represents the crème de la crème of archive documentary. The story is that of a man from a small Italian town a few years after the Second World War who had the opportunity to travel to the Soviet Union and meet Stalin as a supporter of the Italian communist party. The trip and the social culture of the times are well reported by the fact that he had a hobby of shooting videos with Super-8, and that is the footage that makes up the film.

Ferrone and Manzolini, understanding the power of these amateur films, convey their power by allowing them to entrance the viewer with a hypnotic pace conveyed by some good editing decisions and soundtrack picks. This gives the documentary a priceless dreamlike quality that makes it a wonderful and priceless experience, which is ultimately full of melancholia and represents an important time of hinted socio-political rebirth of a nation deeply affected and disenchanted by the horrors of warfare but also its resulting disappointment.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012), Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)

 

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3 – The Stag (John Butler)

John Butler’s take on the Irish bachelor party traditions is not the infantile comedy that we have been used to expecting – a prejudice mostly shaped by more expensive production that make use of similar elements. This is the story of a man getting married and going off on a ‘Stag’, a trip to the mountains, with his friends and his future brother in law to be, a man whose infamous reputation as a loose cannon has people calling him ‘the machine’. Despite their initial friction, they slowly end up connecting not only to nature, but with each other as they reveal personal sides with one another that will have made their trip worthwhile.

John Butler’s film is filled with hilarious creative comedic gags, yet it is its emotional depth that catches one off guard and makes The Stag infinitely more rewarding than similar films. The Stag has this remarkable ability to be hilarious one moment and the next harrowingly intimate thanks to a very clever and well balanced screenplay. Though the cast does not include any big names, they all do a great job in conveying the strength of the film and its story. Furthermore, The Stag plays up on the Irish element of the film almost fearlessly.

Entertaining and overall rewarding, this seems to be destined to become a true gem of Irish cinema’s comedy genre and there is just no reason why it shouldn’t be.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997), Three Men and a Leg (Tre Uomini e una Gamba, Aldo Baglio, Giacomo Poretti, Giovanni Storti, Massimo Venier, 1997)

 

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2. – This is Martin Bonner (Chad Hartigan)

A real treat. Hartigan builds a great atmosphere in his tale of escape from alienation, re-kindling with the outside world and human warmth. This is the story of Martin Bonner, an Australian born man who moved from the East Coast to the Nevada Desert for work, and his meeting with an ex-convict Travis as he tries to re-connect with the outside world and his estranged daughter.

The film overflows with convincing humanity, whilst its unhurried pace and its lack of usual cinematic hyperbole makes it all more rewarding. In other words, This is Martin Bonner achieves exactly what it sets out to – it portrays hope but doesn’t force an ending though perhaps it captures a beginning in the most compelling of ways.

The simple beauty of the film is translated fully by the style of cinematography that recalls classic filmmaking by making use of old fashioned techniques such as zooms and 360 pans that not only rekindle cinema with some casually forgotten evocative feelings but also reveal a particular side of the US. This in turn leads to the construction of an atmosphere beautifully charged with nostalgia but also melancholia. A remarkable film of simple beauty.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy, 2003), About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002)

 

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1. – Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)

The Coen brothers shift slightly out of their comfort zone with a more character driven story that has an urban grittier film. Inside Llewyn Davis follows the predicaments of a struggling folk singer in new York City in the early sixties as he struggles to get the recognition and fame he feels he deserves as a musician. All the while, he certainly suffers for his art, constantly penniless – so much so that he is unable to even afford himself a winter coat – and encountering nothing but closed doors.

Oscar Isaac in the leading role is absolutely amazing and delivers the kind of magnetic performance that was required. In fact, his face alone is able to reveal an endless array of emotions from anger to frustration, concern and disenchantment to sadness and kind-heartedness. He’s a lot like a beaten dog, who despite the hardships takes his fair share of beatings and still relentlessly gets up for more. This is what also leads him on a desperate and in many ways hopeless trip to Chicago to meet a big producer and show him a latest work of his. On top of that, he is able to evoke great feeling through his singing as well as his acting.

Strong support is provided by the likes of Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman. On a narrative level, the film is engaging from start to finish. Though one would expect a certain frustrated and angry tone to dictate the tone of the film, Inside Llewyn Davis is soft-spoken and has a type of unexpected warmth that makes it endlessly charming. What is absolutely remarkable, in fact, is the way in which Joel and Ethan Coen are at their ease at not only telling the story in an engaging way, as they have after all done in the past. It is the way in which they remain totally respectful and faithful to not only Llewyn’s dreams and visions but also to the cultural atmosphere of the times and the type of music that is the true driving force of their latest work. And at this point, it is only right to mention that the soundtrack is memorable and it’s easy to see that some of its numbers in particular will spin off and take on a life of their own beyond the film. The photography is also arguably much grainier that in any other film by the Coens. This evokes the style of the cinema of the time, the American New Wave, where a lot of the films were also character driven. This adds to the faithful atmosphere of the time and conveys the prestige of the work that is certainly among the most solid that the great American filmmakers have ever made.

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), Cisco Pike (Bill L. Norton, 1972)
NOTE: This top 10 does not include films I included in the Top 10s from the Venice Film Festival, the Cork Film Festival or the BFI London Film Festival. It does, however, include all of the films I watched and reviewed at this year’s Torino Film Festival.
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Top 10 Festival Films: BFI London Film Festival

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Matt Micucci picks his top 10 films from the 57th BFI London Film Festival (9–20 October 2013).

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10. – Salvo (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza)

Set in hot Palermo, this is the story of a cold-blooded killer who gets himself into trouble with his own people when he can’t kill off the blind sister of a man who tried to murder him.

Conveying the element of the girl’s blindness, the film is quite a sensorial experience that drifts away from the usual cinematic language by putting less emphasis on dialogue and more on creating a compelling atmosphere moved forward by the titular character’s conflict of emotions. Without disregarding its moments of tension and intense showdown, what seems to start as a violent gangster film becomes a hopelessly tragic love story that is at once harrowing and charming.

Saleh Bakri is an excellent choice as Salvo, and delivers a penetrating performance as the man of few words, one in fact which often recalls Clint Eastwood in the renowned Sergio Leone Dollars trilogy.

 

WATCH THIS IS YOU LIKED – Gomorrah (2008, Matteo Garrone), A Fistful of Dollars (1964, Sergio Leone)

 

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9. – Locke (Steve Knight)

Ivan Locke will not be going home tonight to watch a football match with his family. Nor will he be able to supervise a major concrete pour to facilitate the building of a huge skyscraper. Ivan Locke is driving down to a hospital where a woman, who is not his wife, is giving birth to his child. This film follows his night time car trip as he deals with both his precarious family and professional issues over a series of phone conversations, convinced that he is making the right decision.

It seems that with Locke, Steve Knight’s concept was to take the appeal of radio plays to the big screen. As a result, his film is one of the most intimate portrayal of a fictional character in cinematic history. The cameras –  red epics that make the film’s darkness all the more vivid and add a certain visual beauty to the film – never leave the enclosed setting of the car, and yet Locke remains gripping, intense and even entertaining throughout.

The whole experiment would never have worked if it hadn’t been for Tom Hardy’s amazing and yet often restrained, perfectly balanced performance. In this film, which can seem like the ultimate vanity project for any actor, he shows amazing skill,  literally carrying the weight of the film on his shoulder.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Buried (2010, Rodrigo Cortés), Cosmopolis (2012, David Cronenberg)

 

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8. – Ida (Pawel Pawlikowksi)

Anna, a young girl brought up in a convent, is just about to take her vows and become a nun. Before she does, her Mother Superior insists that she try to reconnect with her last remaining relative, her aunt Wanda, an intellectual and strong woman. After some initial hostility, the two set off on a road trip looking for the place where Anna’s parents were executed and buried during the Second World War.

Pawlikowski’s latest work feels like a journey of a character’s self-discovery but also a journey through the meanders of Poland’s historical conscience. Shot in glorious black and white photography, each frame is carefully composed and adds a poetic depth to the narrative and conveys the careful structure of the character development.

All the while, Kulesza and Trzebuchowska share wonderful chemistry in their moments of soft spoken melancholia and pathos with their performances of their respective characters, who have radically opposed personalities, that conveys Ida’s lack of emotional obviousness in favour of a more honest and touching approach.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – My Summer of Love (2004, Pawel Pawlikowski), The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, 1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

 

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7. – Child’s Pose (Pozitia copilului) (Calin Peter Netzer)

All wealthy 60-year-old Cornelia really wants is for her thirty-something son to reciprocate the love she has for him. Her son Barbu, on the other hand, would simply like her to leave him alone. However, when Barbu is involved in a tragic car accident killing a small child in the process, Cornelia, who sees this as an opportunity to win back the love of her son, is thrust back into his life.

The first thing that strikes about this film is the unflinching urgency with which it unravels. The exciting pace of the film is made even more entertaining by its faithful portrayal of the everyday humour and drama of the common mother and son relationship which it aims to represent. However, Child’s Pose is also remarkable for the way in which it portrays such a relationship by not only making use of a harrowing and very original plot, which is centred around a compelling theme of loss, but also for the way in which Romanian director Netzer allows his characters to openly reveal their honest vulnerabilities and eccentricities.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Mamma Roma (1962, Pier Paolo Pasolini), All About My Mother (Todo Sobre Mi Madre, 1999, Pedro Almodóvar)

 

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6. – The Double (Richard Ayoade)

Richard Ayoade’s follows up his widely acclaimed debut feature Submarine with another stylised film that deals with obsession, love rivalry and psychopathy. Based on Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, this is the story of an irreparably shy and downtrodden young office clerk hopelessly in love with a colleague Hannah, whom he is fixated upon but whose presence despairingly intimidates and mortifies him.

His difficult life is made all the more difficult when a new worker who looks exactly like him but has a complete opposite and extrovert personality is hired and takes advantage of him in any way he can, by exploiting his office work to climb through the company ranks and even stealing the woman he loves.

The Double is remarkably overflowing with creativity and a visual style that recalls the classic film noir, or even the thriller dramas of the late mute period, but also flirts with the bizarreness of the science fiction works of Terry Gilliam, particularly in the creation of a mostly timeless American setting. The way it is composed and structured, whether it is in the mise en scene of each frame or in the narrative developments of the story itself, is fearlessly obvious yet its confidence and exciting pace makes it gripping and entertaining all throughout.

On top of that, it has a sweet and romantic inner core that ensures The Double an irresistible charm, which completes the stylish nature of Ayoade’s direction. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast in this film, and shows amazing versatility and skill in the uneasy portraying two characters who look and dress exactly the same but who are radically different in nature and purpose. In fact, it is obvious that without the strength of Eisenberg’s performance the film would have crumbled and lost credibility.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam), American Psycho (2000, Mary Harron)

 

5. – Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Jigoku de Naze Warui) (Sion Sono)

The cult Japanese Yakuza film genre gets a trendy and exciting update in Why Don’t You Play in Hell? by director Scion Sono, who has been described as the Japanese Quentin Tarantino – and the comparison between the two directors certainly rings true considering Tarantino’s venture into classic cult Japanese genre films with Kill Bill.

The story, based on a screenplay Sono had written fifteen years earlier, involves the violent exploits of two rival Yakuza gangs. One of the gang leaders, as a gift to his wife, wants to make a film star out of her daughter who had reached the peak of her fame as the child in a famous toothpaste commercial. Parallel to this is the story of a group of excited renegade young filmmakers who call themselves the ‘Fuck Bombers’.

The meeting between these two stories will lead to an exciting rollercoaster ride of riveting action sequences, hilarious comedy gags and stylish ultra-violence. The key to Sono’s film is exaggeration, and it has rarely ever worked so consistently. The screenplay never misses a beat, and unravels thrillingly through an imaginative approach and plot developments that wilfully extend its boundaries to boarderline ridiculous. Furthermore, the film’s visuals are wonderfully outlandish. In the midst of this spellbinding chaos is also an unorthodox yet much appreciated tribute to the death of celluloid.

In short, Why Don’t You Play in Hell is a remarkably imaginative riot that establishes its director as a modern cult film visionary and is more than likely to win him a devoted following from here on.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003, 2004, Quentin Tarantino), Fist of Fury (Jing wu men, 1972, Wei Lo)

 

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4. – Sacro GRA  (Francesco Rosi)

A decadent nobleman, a transvestite prostitute, a botanist on a mission to save palm trees from insect infestation, a kind-hearted paramedic. They are only four of the many colourful characters who live in the areas around Rome’s famous Ring Road followed by Gianfranco Rosi in his latest work.

This year’s Golden Lion winner, the first documentary to win the coveted prize, Sacro GRA feels as much like a tender and heartfelt look at these everyday people as it does an enchanting portrayal of the magical side and uniqueness of these individuals. It also feels like the more realistic spin on the familiar multiple plotline structure that is prominent in fiction filmmaking but never feels as genuine and harrowing as it does in this documentary.

Furthermore, its wonderful and careful photography makes it seem like a touching and entertaining narrative drama that is often at once funny and tragic – an approach that both reveals and flatters Rosi’s scope of seeking and showing the beauty of the comedy and drama of everyday life.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Fellini’s Roma (Roma, 2972, Federico Fellini), The Four Times (Le Quattro Volte, 2010, Michelangelo Frammartino)

 

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3. – Starred Up (David Mackenzie)

David MacKenzie takes the essence of the domestic drama of a difficult father-son relationship and confines it to the tense and claustrophobic setting of a prison.

Starred Up is the story of a rebellious teenage inmate whose angry life deteriorates when he is transferred to the same prison as his father. The father’s attempts at helping his son, in fact, seem to do nothing but fuel Eric’s rage even more and risk putting him into more trouble with the guards. MacKenzie digs deep within the psychology of the characters and their somewhat distorted and selfish priorities.

In the end, this testosterone filled drama is also a harrowing and hard-hitting intimate portrayal made even deeper and more compelling by the wonderful magnetic performances of Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn, who invest body and soul in their honest and sometimes disturbing interpretations of father and son.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – In the Name of the Father (1993, Jim Sheridan), Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)

 

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2. – Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adéle) by Abdellatif Kechiche

Much more than the sexually explicit film its controversial nature would have you believe. Director Kechiche knocks down conventional boundaries to truly examine the passion of the love story between two young women, Adele and Emma, from their schooldays to their young adulthood.

While it was based on a graphic novel, a lot of Kechiche’s own concerns with class and society are represented in this film. And while it is true that the sex scenes are lengthy, steamy and imaginative it is equally true but not as acknowledged that the scenes where the girls converse are equally as long and allowed to breathe.

This is a technique that truly reveals the most intimate details of the romance between the two central figures in the film and helps establish a fresh kind of connection with a modern audience. While the film occasionally suffers from its share of overzealousness, it is truly remarkable how the film can remain absorbing despite its length of over three hours.

Lead actresses Adéle Exarchoupoulos and Léa Seydoux deliver praiseworthy and very brave performances, which were of vital importance to give the film the right kind of credibility. Furthermore, with their beauty, sexual chemistry and tenderness they have all the potential to become modern cultural icons of romanticism whether the censorship boards like it or not.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain, 1973, Jean Eustache), Pauline at the Beach (Pauline á la Plage, 1983, Eric Rohmer)

 

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1. –Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru) (Hirokazu Koreeda)

The lives of two very different Japanese families are shaken when they discover six years later that a mix-up in a hospital inadvertently swapped their two male babies. This bombshell inevitably leads to much psychological and emotional distress on both sides of the story, and especially in the father of one of the families who is led down a road of deep and meaningful re-evaluations of fatherhood as well as reflection own struggles with exposing his own emotions.

After dealing with the separation of a pair of young siblings in his previous work, I Wish, Kore-eda returns to the domestic drama territory in a profoundly moving film. However, apart from the story and thought provoking discourse, which also carefully contrasts family traditionalism with modernism, the filmmaker also employs a tasteful kind of style in bringing the story to the screen which is tastefully defined and doesn’t shift the attention away from the intimacy of the meditative nature of Like Father, Like Son and its difficult themes.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – I Wish (Kiseki, 2011, Hirokazu Koreeda), Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari, 1953,Yasujiro Ozu)

 

NOTE: This Top 10 does not include films that were included in my Venice Film Festival Top 10. It does, however, include all the films I watched from every one of the festival selection i.e. Official Competition, First Feature Competition, Documentary Competition, Thrill, Journey, Cult, Love…
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Top 10 Festival Films: Venice

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Matt Micucci picks his top 10 films from the 70th Venice International Film Festival (28th August – 7th September 2013)

 

10. – Gerontophilia (Bruce la Bruce)

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An 18-year-old discovers his sexual fetishism for old men after he falls in love with an 81-year-old inhabitant of the nursing home he works in. Bruce LaBruce returns with another controversial feature. Yet this time he ditches – perhaps momentarily – his visual explicitness and usual tastelesness for a more classicist and romantic approach in quite a remarkable way.

With production values upped and a more complex narrative, Gerontophilia not only shows that Bruce LaBruce could perhaps re-invent himself as a more mainstream kind of non-conformist filmmaker, but also represents his audacity at creating a film which represents a kind of remarkable artistic rebirth.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Hustler White (1996, Bruce la Bruce), Harold and Maude (1971, Hal Ashby)

 

 

9. – Nobody’s Home (Deniz Akcay)

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The story of a selfish and depressed mother, her caring adult daughter who longs for her own independence, her estranged and rebellious son and her neglected youngest daughter. They are four people who not only struggle to feel like a family after the death of their husband and father but also slowly but surely seem to be on the road to destroying each other’s lives.

Deniz Akcay’s Nobody’s Home is a remarkable first feature that brims over with emotional pathos in an oppressive urban background. However, the most interesting aspect of the film is that apart from its heart-breaking domestic drama, it feels like a fresh landmark for Turkish cinema in its representation of female characters and situations that go beyond the traditional conservative ways.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, 2011, Asghar Farhadi), Head On (Gegen die Wand, 2004, Fatih Akin)

 

 

8. – Lenny Cooke (Bennie Safdie, Joshua Safdie)

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The rise and immediate fall of promising young basketball star Lenny Cooke as he gears up for the 2001 NBA Draft but fails on the grounds of meritocracy. We meet him years later as he inevitably reflects on his mistakes in letting himself miss the opportunity and waste his natural talent.

This film was screened as a special exchange between the Venice Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival. It is a very gritty feel with a beautiful feel of urban decadence. The stock footage looks dirty and raw, making it seem more legitimate. The Safdie brothers are very reminiscent of the other legendary brothers in documentary, the Meysels.

In Lenny Cooke, in fact, they employ the same guerrilla tactics of direct cinema and let the characters speak for themselves and seduce the camera. Ultimately, however, out of the natural comedy of the world in which they film comes an honest tragedy of fate and Shakespearean remorse right up to epilogue, which is at once dramatic and poetic.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IS YOU LIKED – Salesmen (1968, Albert Maysels, David Maysels, Charlotte Zwerin), Hoop Dreams (1994, Steve James)

 

 

7. – Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas)

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The story of the meeting between a Columbia University student called Allen Ginsberg with two other beat literary icons to be – Jack Kerouac and John Burroughs. The meeting takes place around the figure of Lucien, a suave rebellious figure who seems to inspire the three yet also often places them in dangerous situations.

Krodikas, in his first feature, revives the spirit of the beat writers by giving himself little time to complete the film, and even the slight imperfections in the cinematography recall the missing punctuations in a sentence by Kerouac. Kill Your Darlings has a very modern feel and is suitably directed at a younger audience through its edgy style, a sexual charge and incorporating modern music in the soundtrack. Furthermore, the aimed casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg proves to be suited and his performance quite brave.

While many will argue whether Krokidas went too far in making the beat culture look contemporary, there is no doubt about the fact that Kill Your Darlings is an appealing and fashionable take on the times as well as a harrowing look at the pain behind the greatest of artists.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – The Great Gatsby (2013, Baz Luhrmann), The Breakfast Club (1985, John Hughes), If…. (1968, Lindsey Anderson)

 

 

6. – Redemption by Miguel Gomes

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Four men in different times and place settings recall different stages in their lives and an event which deeply affected them. A genial mix of experimental essay documentary filmmaking and cleverly creative political satire, Miguel Gomes’ film plays with the viewer’s perception of the archive imagery and the deep and sentimental voiceovers to imagine some plausible event that would have shaped the lives of four important politicians and made them what they ultimately become.

In this way, he thematically recalls what we could call the ‘rosebud’ element from Welles’ Citizen Kane. As such, it also works as the recreation of an imaginative re-invention of the term ‘public figure’ in its most open definition.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – La Morte Rouge (2006, Victor Erice), Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker)

 

 

5. – Walesa. Man of Hope (Andrzej Wajda)

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Legendary Polish filmmaker Wajda returns to shed new light on another important moment in Polish history and completes his trilogy; after the Man of Marble and the Man of Iron, here is the Man of Hope.

This time his subject is Lech Walesa, an electrician who was responsible for founding the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc. And this time his subject is still an alive and kicking important figure in Polish modern history. For Wajda, this is the return of his somewhat recognisable style of classics such as Man of Marble for which he also used archive footage, a mixture of black and white photography with colour photography and a steady pace. The visual style is quite remarkable particularly when considering that this film did not have a big budget. Through its sometimes poignant sense of humour and use of irony in the portrayal it is also delightfully satirical and deserves added points for entertainment.

Perhaps it is not as passionate as his best work, but like a lot of his works he has that matter-of-fact consistency from which a genuine desire for unearthing the Polish conscience can be drawn. Wajda himself announced a while back that his biopic on Walesa might have ended up controversial, however, it never feels like it is, but it rather feels like the solid and confident work of an experienced filmmaker. It wouldn’t be fair not to mention Robert Wieckiewicz’s excellent performance as the titular historic figure.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmuru, 1977, Andrzej Wajda), The Iron Lady (2011, Phyllida Lloyd)

 

 

4. – Bethlehem by Yuval Adler

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The Israeli Palestinian conflict is always a hot and controversial topic to be dealing with. Yuval’s choice of dealing with it for his first film reveals him as quite ambitious and audacious. Bethlehem is the story of three men who are caught in the middle of the storm; a man from the Israeli Secret Service, a leader of the Palestinian militants and an informant who is emotionally attached to both sides by friendship and family.

Adler’s film is a powerful spy thriller, yet it has nothing to do with the conventional perception of the genre, particularly in its realistic approach that refuses to sugarcoat the cultural context of the story. Bethlehem is also admirable for its refusal to pick sides or make major political statements choosing instead to focus on the emotional side of the story and the intensity of the characters as individuals. While some may still find the inevitable political implications a little uneasy, Bethlehem is a remarkably powerful work.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – Bloody Sunday (2002, Paul Greengrass), The Hurt Locker (2008, Kathryn Bigelow)

3.  The Armstrong Lie (Alex Gibney)

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The investigative documentarian par excellence of this generation, Alex Gibney, returns shortly after the release of his fearless The Story of WikiLeaks and Mea Maxima Culpa with another gripping and exciting documentary that retains the urgency of unfolding history.

Here, the subject of his documentary is Lance Armstrong, the seven times Tour de France winner who was caught for doping, thus tainting his legacy as sports icon. The interesting aspect is that in 2009, Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France after his retirement would have been the subject of another Gibney documentary which would have looked at him in a totally different perspective. This adds a personal element to the film which makes it a little more personal and hence interesting whilst never taking over the mystery of the plot as it unravels at an exciting pace. Gripping and entertaining, this film is also a fascinating look behind the scenes at a sport tainted by doping scandals.

Alex Gibney is a trend setter and there is no one better, at least in cinema nowadays, in making the kind of films that he makes and in making them with such an amazing consistency.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013, Alex Gibney), The Imposter (2012, Bart Layton)

 

 

2. – Philomena (Stephen Frears)

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A down and out reporter comes across an Irish woman named Philomena, whose son, who would now be fifty, was taken away from her by the Magdalene Sisters. He decides to write an article about her as he helps her trying to find him. The screenplay, based on a true story, is solid gold, with its perfectly timed balance of humour and drama. Furthermore, despite the fact that it deals with the heavy issue of a Catholic Church scandal, it also remains quite balanced in dealing with it from the two different perspectives of the lead characters on faith and spiritualism in general.

The acing is masterful. Judi Dench stars as the titular character with a performance that is full of sensibility and humanity – it is arguably her best performance of all time, sweetly melancholic and humorous. Steve Coogan opposite her is the perfect disenchanted cynic – he also deserves praise for co-writing the screenplay and producing the film. All in all, Frears’ film is a crowd pleaser, but one full of meaning and purpose acheiving the prose that most of its kind fail to accomplish.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – The King’s Speech (2010, Tom Hooper), Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005, Stephen Frears)

 

 

1. – Stray Dogs (Tsai Ling-Miang)

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The portrait of a family in Taiwan that lives in a certain state of decadence. This film will split the audience in half. While some will never stop praising it, others will quite simply have no time for it. Its reliance on lengthy uneventful and still shots as well as a narrative that seems to go nowhere will frustrate many viewers. But then again, this film is not for everyone and that is part of its appeal.

Tsai Ling-Miang moves at his own pace and doesn’t seem to be interested in shifting away from his still and challenging style. Stray Dogs is, whether people like it or not, a truly magnificent vision and a purifying experience. Very often as an audience we are used to the camera pointing at a subject only if that subject will do something or interact with an object in some way. Here, the opposite happens most of the time, and the audience is hence led to interact with the scenes and lack of action in a subconscious and unique way. Yet, the intensity of the lack of action is powerful in its own unique way.

In a sense, with Stray Dogs in particular, Tsai Ling-Miang re-invents the cinematic language but the perception of its beauty and its emotion relies on the will of the viewer to tag along for the ride and be transported by this hypnotising and stunning film. Of course, Stray Dogs heavily hints at serious themes, like the decadence and frustration of modern culture, but on a human level it is just as intense.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Vive l’Amour (Aiqing wansui, 1994, Tsai Ling-Miang), Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)

 

NOTE: This top ten is more or less in order of personal preference and is only of the films that I have seen.  As well as that, it only includes the films that were part of the official programme of the festival and its different selections – main competition, Orizzonti, Venice Days, Settimana della Critica, Venice Film Market, special screenings and out of competition screenings. Hence, it does not include the Lux Prize finalists. Although these three films were screened during the festival, they were not actually part of the official programme and were treated as a different and independent section.

 

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58th Cork Film Festival: ‘The Red House’ & ‘In the Name Of’

The 58th Cork Film Festival (9 – 17 November)

 

Matt Micucci takes a look at The Red House and In the Name Of , which both screened as part of the 58th Cork Film Festival.

 

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The Red House (Alyx Duncan)

The intimate domestic drama of Yasujiro Ozu meets the poetic narrative and visual structure of Terence Malick in this impressive directorial feature debut by New Zealand director Alyx Duncan.

The Red House paints the picture of Lee and Jia, a married couple in their sixties still madly in love despite their cultural differences. But when Jia has to return to her homeland to take care of an ill parent, this forced momentary separation threatens the balance of their idyllic relationship.

The film has slight imperfections and some slight carelessness in the screenplay as well as an occasional feeling of sparseness in the message that sometimes feels unfocused particularly when dealing with the afore mentioned cultural differences,

However, Duncan’s film still comes across as a deeply moving and heart-warming tribute to long lasting unconditional love and to the joys and sorrows of devotion. On top of that, its remarkable photography with a penchant for landscape and lyrical imagery makes it look very refined. Duncan’s bravest and ultimately recompensing choice was to cast her own parents in the lead role, hence adding an intense passionate realism in their chemistry and romance.

 

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In the Name Of  (Malgorzata Szumowska)

Adam, a Polish Catholic Priest who has embraced the religious life to fight back his homosexuality, works in a rural village with teenagers with behavioural difficulties. Even though Szumowska’s In the Name Of is certainly provocative and often even uncomfortable, it never descends into tastelessness. However, the film constantly struggles to battle off this awkward feeling of being dishonest due to a lack of believable and truly compelling emotional depth – perhaps unaided by the lack of chemistry between Andrzej Chyra who plays Adam (admittedly a tough part to play) and Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, who plays his young lover Lukasz.

There are certain notably impactful elements that particularly lie around the Priest’s own internal struggles, sadness, anger and psychological torment – such as the impending shadow of a hostile reaction that hovers more menacingly over his head as the film progresses. As well as that, there is a little sensorial charm in its warm lighting and summertime setting that not only evokes sentiments of ‘sad young men’ of the forties and fifties, which usually dealt lightly with homoerotic themes, but also creates an intriguing contrast with the darkness in the soul of the film’s central figure.

Nevertheless, it may not be enough to save the film from being essentially weak or even disappointingly forgettable for better or for worse.

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58th Cork Film Festival: ‘Sarah Prefers to Run’ & Tony Palmer’s ‘Nocturne’

The 58th Cork Film Festival (9 – 17 November)

 

Matt Micucci checks out Sarah Prefers to Run and Nocturne, which both screened as part of the 58th Cork Film Festival.

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Sarah Prefers to Run (Chloé Robichaud)

Sarah is a 20-year-old girl who loves to run and moves to Montreal to make the big athletics league. Her life outside of running, however, is a little trivial as she constantly alienates herself from her friends and her mother. This is particularly true in the case of her relationship with Antoine, with whom she moves to Montreal and gets married for no other reason than to claim financial incentives.

Sarah Prefers to Run is literally a film about a character who prefers running over everything and in the process becomes a film about giving up on love, life and even happiness to feed into her idea of ethereal happiness. Robichaud is particularly brave in making a number of interesting anti-cinematic choices that in fact go against the traditional representation of human sentiments on the big screen whether it is through Sarah’s own passive nature or the awkward sexual chemistry she shares with Antoine – especially in a particularly uneasy and almost darkly comical sex scene.

Though in the grand vision of the film everything makes sense, Robichaud’s film can’t escape or shake off a feeling of pretentiousness and superficiality which will leave some members of the audience feeling totally cold – as cold, in fact, as Sarah herself seems to be towards human connection.

Sarah Prefers to Run mixes a valid mixture of honesty and metaphor, presented in a Dardenne Brothers’ type of visual realism, presented through an original compelling story and a captivating character study.

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Nocturne (Tony Palmer)

Throughout his illustrious career, Tony Palmer has shown a great understanding of music and the musical process in its wider sense. His latest film Nocturne takes a look at the life of one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten, in honour of his hundredth birthday.

Having worked with Britten before, Palmer has clearly formed his idea of the composer’s personality, and what this film stands as is an analysis of any element – domestic, historical, sexual and political – that influenced his masterworks as well as a harrowing examination of his personality. In fact, there is literally nothing missing from this film, whether it is unique artistic representation of his work’s inspiration by juxtaposition of images of the holocaust and Iraq bombings over a performance of his renowned War Requiem, a detailed description of his music’s disciplined ethics by experts and critics and interviews with people who were closest to him. As well as that, it makes use of great archive material from films that show the man at work or his operas staged for television, some of it shot by Palmer himself.

However, there is more. The film’s unhurried pace allows its audience to truly identify with the film and the music with its unhurried pace that urges a kind of meditative interaction. Nocturne, therefore, is an astounding piece of documentary filmmaking that is at once structured and experimental. It is at once biographical and poetic. A truly magnificent experience, and a glorious find by the Cork Film Festival for this year’s edition.

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58th Cork Film Festival: ‘A Glimpse in the Mind of Charles Swan III’ & ‘Wavemakers’

 The 58th Cork Film Festival (9 – 17 November)

Matt Micucci on A Glimpse in the Mind of Charles Swan III and Wavemakers, which both screened as part of the 58th Cork Film Festival.

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A Glimpse in the Mind of Charles Swan III (Roman Coppola)

 

Charlie Sheen plays a graphic designer who descends into utter misery after his girlfriend leaves him. There have been some arguments in favour of Roman Coppola’s A Glimpse in the Mind of Charles Swan III that have called it a misunderstood tribute to ’70s film. However, there is very little to admire in a film that is uncertain about whether it wants to be deadpan or childish – so in the end it is just cardboard.

On top of that, its general humour is rather weak and the filmmaker doesn’t appear skilled enough to give the drama any relevant importance. The saddest element of all, however, is Charlie Sheen. Not only is his perhaps premature casting in a role that feels like a surrogate of his own ‘controversial’ lifestyle often feel very uncomfortable, but it’s even worse to see the embarrassing rare instances where the film requires him to act – particularly when we remember that this is the same man who once starred in Platoon.

 

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Wavemakers (Caroline Martel)

 

Not many people will be familiar with the almost magical and yet obscure and mysterious instrument called the Ondes Martenot. Yet, this early electronic instrument has an infectious hypnotic charge that has made most people who have come in contact with it in one way or another fall in love with it, including filmmaker Caroline Martel, who came to know its haunting tones when she used it as the soundtrack to her previous film The Phantom of the Operator.

This certainly comes through in her latest documentary, Wavemakers, that tracks its lifespan from its inception in the mind of its creator Maurice Martenot right down to its relevance in modern music – whether it is through Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood or its most celebrated interpreter Suzanne Binet-Audet. Martel also shows a deep connection with the ondes Martenot by allowing its unique tones and vibratos to dictate its tone, mood and rhythm in a way that makes her documentary almost mystical and downright hypnotic.

A treat for the eyes and the ears, Wavemakers is also both a passionate and loving tribute to its subject as well as a warm appraisal of music’s most artisanal side.

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58th Cork Film Festival: ‘Who is Dayani Cristal?’ & ‘Soldate Jeannette’

 The 58th Cork Film Festival (9 – 17 November)

 

Matt Micucci checks out Who is Dayani Cristal? by Marc Silver and Soldate Jeannette by Daniel Hoesl, which both screened as part of the 58th Cork Film Festival.

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Who is Dayani Cristal?  (Marc Silver)

 

A powerful documentary that will surely shed a new and more human light on a delicate issue that is often viewed from a safe and unflatteringly politicised distance. Marc Silver offers a remarkable insight on the migration of poverty stricken Latin Americans to the United States, but takes a look at it from a haunting and original perspective by focusing on its dangerous and often tragic journey.

Its starting point, in fact, comes from the decomposing corpses or remains of the dead travellers found on the Sonora desert and the retracing of one of those bodies in particular – whose only initial distinguishing trait is a tattoo of the words ‘Dayani Cristal’. It is this man’s story, in fact, that is portrayed harrowingly with three different approaches – a narrative one starring Gael Garcia Bernal, an investigative one as the body’s origins are retraced and an intimate one where his family and close friends are interviewed.

The result is at once entertaining, haunting and potent as well as very important and effective in raising awareness on the issue that works as a spotlight on a specific geographic area but could a easily take more universal meaning in the subject of migration.

Furthermore, through skill and sensibility, Silver totally avoids patronisation or even exploitation. Who is Dayani Cristal? offers a voice to the voiceless and a strong human standpoint that urges international dialogue.

 

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Soldate Jeannette (Daniel Hoesl)

 

The story of Fanni and Anna, two women sickened by the lives they lead; the first lives a life of pretend luxury and another a life of squalor among the pigs and the cows in a slaughter farm. The two meet. It’s hard to believe that Rotterdam almost fooled everyone into thinking that this was a landmark work of modern experimental cinema when it awarded it the Tiger Award.

It is a goofy attempt at depth and substance inexplicably referring to Dreyer’s Joan of Arc but ending up being half the movie Thelma and Louise was. The worst part is that Hoesl would rather fool us into thinking that Soldate Jeannette is a fresh and original tribute to the experimental cinema of the European no-wave than come up with anything that really is original in form, theme and context.

It’s the type of film that burns fake money and kills real animals on screen. Disgusting. Some people will be fooled by its clever antics, but this is a kind of snobbish swindle and an insulting betrayal to innovation.

 

www.corkfilmfest.org

Check out our Cork Film Festival coverage here

 

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Interview: Philip Ilson, curator of audio-visual experimentation at the Cork Film Festival

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Matt Micucci delves into the audio-visual experimentation that featured at this year’s Cork Film Festival and chatted to curator Philip Ilson about the three events: Felix the Cat: The Original Megastar,  a screening of classic Felix the Cat shorts that were rescored, written and performed by Sean O’Hagan and The High Llamas; harpist and songwriter Serafina Steer performing a live re-score of Amer; and A Field in England-Remixed, performed by electronic post-rock band Teeth of the Sea and features the music of Jim Williams and Blanck Mass.

So far, the 58th Cork Film Festival has certainly been one full of exciting treats and charming surprises. Aside from the high quality of the programme itself, one of the most interesting and creative concepts of this year’s edition is certainly the audio-visual experimentation that aims to mix screenings with live music performances – a concept that was created and is curated by Philip Ilson.

This type of project is not new to Ilson. “I run a festival in London called the London Shorts Film Festival, which grew out of film nights that I was running in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Although we are extensively about showing short films and showcasing short film talent, we always try to incorporate things like live music, VJ’s or elements that make it more than just about the screenings. Even when I ran a club in the early 2000s, we used to have this kind of audio-visual stuff and worked with artists such as Ladytron and DJ Yoda.”

Over the years, he helped set up the film festival in Jersey and one of the many things he really wanted to do was add this performance element to it. Although he had been part of the short film jury at last year’s edition, it was the new artistic director James Mullighan – with whom he also worked on the Jersey Film Festival – that asked him if he had any ideas for the Cork Film Festival. Out of these ideas, three of them were included in the final programme and were to take place in the beautiful and mystical Triskel Christchurch.

Felix the Cat: The Original Megastar was a screening of classic Felix the Cat shorts that were rescored, written and performed by Sean O’Hagan and The High Llamas. The mix of the comedy of the animation and the melodic and psychedelic pop melodies of the High Llamas was simply wonderful. This project also came to life thanks to the London International Animation Festival. “They were the ones who initially commissioned it, but in the end it didn’t come together in time for it – mostly due to costs. It was also something that I had talked about doing with the High Llamas a few years ago to take to Jersey. So, it was great to see it finally come to life here in Cork.”

With the next two concepts, things  get a little more experimental. Friday night, as part of the Giallo Night programme, harpist and songwriter Serafina Steer performed a live re-score of a film called Amer, made in 2009 by Hélene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. “The filmmakers who made Amer have been drawing on the aspects of the giallo films. They are very much drawing on the imagery, which creates a very visual experience.”

Saturday night’s event,  A Field in England-Remixed,  was performed by electronic post-rock band Teeth of the Sea and featured the music of Jim Williams and Blanck Mass. “The Field in England thing happened purely because I saw the film at the cinema and thought it was so amazingly visual that it would work great in a concept like this. We spoke to many artists and there was a lot of back and forth but I’m really pleased that Teeth to the Sea, with whom I’ve worked twice before, are doing it. They’ve got a great understanding of the piece and worked on the remixing of a piece by Neil Marshall in the past.”

Despite being the creator and curator of the project, Ilson insisted that the artists should have creative freedom and very much stayed out of the artists’ way in preparation for their performance. “Finding the right people is always a bit of a struggle, but once they have been commissioned to do it, they are pretty much on their own. It’s as much as a surprise to me as to the rest of the audience.”

 

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58th Cork Film Festival: ‘XL’ & ‘From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf’

 The 58th Cork Film Festival (9 – 17 November)

 

Matt Micucci takes a look at XL by Marteinn Thorsson, and From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf  by Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran, which both screened as part of the 58th Cork Film Festival.

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XL (Marteinn Thorsson)

Thorsson’s latest film is certainly not of the easy kind. Dealing with the darkness of themes such as political and moral decadence, he builds a world of psychedelic insanity and puts an ‘extra-large’ Alice in Wonderland figure Leifur at the centre of it all – a parliamentary member, king adulterer, alcoholic  who in fact appears to be the human incarnation of all of the seven deadly sins.

An eccentric stylised vision of corruption and depravity, XL is quite simply a rollercoaster ride into hell and depravity, right up to its cathartic and nightmarish ending. It is a very unique vision, particularly considering its originality among the usually static Icelandic cinema through a non-linear narrative construction and a wild technical approach that delves into the unconventional.

The film also asks itself serious questions about masculinity through its lead character’s struggles and his role as a son, husband and father. Mind you, some will be shocked and disturbed by the film, but this is mostly because it almost forces us in the shoes of this Shakesperean anti-hero Leifur to the point where we perversely begin to feel for him, in spite of his lack of proper ethics and despite him symbolising virtually all that is wrong in modern society.

Ólafur Darrí Ólafasson is nothing short of praiseworthy as he on takes the role of this ‘big bad man’. His kind of brave interpretation, which demanded a delicate type of self-deprecation and physicality, is absolutely crucial to the film that without it would have quite simply fallen apart.

 

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From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf  (Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran)

Life is not easy when working on a boat in the Arabian Sea – though it has its fair share of romanticism. That is the conclusion we can draw from this experimental documentary feature, which is not afraid to take us out of our comfort zone and practically force its audience to engage actively with the film.

From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf is the fruit of the collaboration between filmmakers Anand and Sukuraman with a group of sailors from the Gulf of Kutch. It is, in fact, a collage of clips shot by the crew members themselves during their trips over the course of four years, some with good cameras but others with anything from phones to webcams – which means that the quality of the clips goes from good to very bad.

It’s a challenging film and some will find it inevitably tedious, but there is nothing sadistic about it not wanting to please its viewer in the most obvious way with a narrative or even any sort of structure worth mentioning. In its form, and its radically realistic representation, this is exactly as tough an experience as it needs to be. Yet, every now and again, the film will logically compensate and please the viewer through its simplicity, whether it is through a fleeting ray of light captured on the screen, the graceful sight of playful happy dolphins or a particularly exciting shot of a boat with a popular Arabic song playing in its background.

 

www.corkfilmfest.org

Check out our Cork Film Festival coverage here

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Interview: Maurice O’Callaghan, director of ‘The Lord’s Burning Rain’

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Matt Micucci sat down with director Maurice O’Callaghan at the 58th Cork Film Festival to discuss his film The Lord’s Burning Rain, which screened last weekend

I understand this film took quite a while to shoot.

It did, it took nine months because, first of all it was a very low-budget film. Second of all my son, who plays the lead role, was doing his Leaving Cert and he was only seventeen at the time so we could only shoot it during his vacation time. We shot it during Summer, Halloween, Christmas, Easter and then the next Summer, so it actually nearly took us twelve months.

 

Can you tell us a little about the story of the film?

It’s about a teenage boy who sets off with his father and his uncle to buy a horse from a mountaineer farmer one October day back in the 1960s. The boy then has to ride the horse home – a journey of forty miles over an enormous mountain range. On his way, he has a series of adventures. The story is based on The Odyssey of Homer and the idea of Telemachus who goes in search of his father, Odysseus, one of the great heroes of the Trojan war, who is not coming home because he has been side-tracked and gone off for twenty years.

Along the way, he meets all these people that tell him bits about his father. In the same way here, Donnachadh Diarmuid meets all sorts of people. The seductive tinker woman , who is based on the similar character Circe in The Odyssey, who tries to seduce Telemachus and steal his horse. The Protestant farmer, who is sort of based on the character of Nestor, the old warrior who has returned from war and knows everything about what happened. And then he meets the blind prophet, Tiresias, who is the man in the black cloak from the house of dead. In all the big stories there is always someone that tells the hero that he must go through the land of the dead to come safely to the other side. Donnachadh has to go into hell and has to see what his ancestors did before he comes out of the other side.

It’s based on a story I wrote in 2005. It was the second story in a collection of short stories that I published that year. In addition to that, as a young man, when I was thirteen years old, I rode a horse like that and I originally wrote it based on myself. Then when you write the story, other fictionalised elements come into play, such as the Greek elements that may already be there but you are not aware of at the time.

 

You have dealt with these themes in the past, and they are themes that are quite personal.

Yes, I grew up in a family of strong Republicans, all fighters from the old revolution. Most writers that are any good will write about what they know. For instance, I lived in America for along time and tried to write stories about my time there, but my publishers told me ‘your writing shines when you write about what you really know and about West Cork’. Although I have left it, even when you’re younger your best writing is about what you have known from the past. So when you don’t know your environment exactly, you have to make it up, whereas it comes natural when you know the environment well.

 

After a few scenes in the film, it becomes clear that this is a personal film. Did working with your own son (Harry O’Callaghan) acting in the film and your daughter (Maud O’Callaghan) producing it enhance your own personal journey while making the film?

It did because I was also playing his father in the film, both in the present time footage and it the black and white ones. That was footage we had shot twenty-five years ago, and had been sitting in an archive. So, you had three generations. I was playing his father, and the original story was based on my own father. It worked fantastically well. Harry was a reluctant actor, he is very naturalistic. He doesn’t do much in the film, but he reacts well and has great stage presence. Plus, I surrounded him with great actors like Jonathan Ryan, who plays the farmer and Caroline Morahan who plays the tinker woman.

 

Speaking of the way in which the film was brought on screen, one of my favourite elements was actually the narration – which sometimes is a drawback in films. Here, it reminded me of the older documentaries by Flaherty and Grierson…

…like Man of Aran?

 

Exactly. Was that deliberate?

Yes, it was deliberate. Another big one was Terence Malick, who uses vast amounts of voiceover in his films. Again, the idea of voiceover is very Homeric with Homer reciting The Iliad and The Odyssey in these big long poems. With this approach I’m reversing the idea of showing and not telling. I guess it’s more of an art-house approach but I think that you can get very bored of the same old bang bang Hollywood stuff.

 

This is, as you said yourself at the Q&A session after the screening, guerrilla filmmaking.

Yes. We had a big budget for my previous film Broken Harvest, but then I stopped filmmaking for a while and went back to writing. So, we didn’t have the money and that is another reason why the voiceover becomes a big thing because it can be added afterwards.

 

Do you find that the Irish revolution has been commercialised by bigger budget films and the realism and intimacy of the subject has been taken out of it too much?

I don’t think there have been many films made about it. I suppose, there was The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which I was involved on an early draft of the script. Michael Collins by Neil Jordan was another one. I just wanted to do it in another way. There is the young boy finding out about the past. Then there is the theme of division between the Catholics and the Protestants in West Cork. Then, there is the theme of the Irish fighting against the British.

 

Was this totally independently funded?

Oh yes, totally independently funded. Not even the Film Board was involved. I kind of didn’t want to wait around, I wanted to do it my way, and I think that nowadays if you do get outside founding you are always kind of required to leave some things in and take some things out. Then I showed it to James Mullighan here at the Cork Film Festival and he was a big fan of it, even though he is Australian and this is his first year – I think maybe it’s also because he saw it from an outsider’s point of view and saw maybe things that the Irish might be more familiar way.

 

The main questions that come to mind when talking about a film totally independently funded are two. The first being, are these types of films hard to get financed and the second one being whether you would be concerned that once they are financed, your original vision would be altered.

Certainly with this particular story, they might have said that the film was a little too pro-Republican, even though I think the big twist in the story is when the farmer, who is telling the kid about his father, actually is a Protestant – and that’s a big shock because he is helping the boy. So, I wouldn’t want to be doing this every day of the week, financing my own films myself – even though nowadays it’s easier with the new technology and the lighter camera. I mean, for instance, what did you think of the cinematography?

 

Like I said,  I took it as a piece of guerrilla filmmaker and once you get over the initial shock of seeing something different then it simply becomes a part of the experience.

One person mentioned to me that the landscape became a character in the movie.

 

Yes, that’s true and when you mentioned Terence Malick as an influence it made even more sense.

Yes. And then there is the fact that the kid has to conquer the mountains. It was a little slow at the start but it was deliberate. The story of the film kicks in with the introduction of the character of the tinker woman.

 

You mentioned that that particular part of the film was added after a first screening.

Yes, we showed it once at the Light House Cinema, just to a test audience of twenty people. Some said that it needed a little bit of excitement, and once the audience meets that tinker woman, then they forget about how long it took to get there. All that stuff in the middle works quite well and keeps the audience watching.

 

One of the conclusions of the film is that it’s hard to predict the future even when understanding the past. But speaking of the future of the film itself, is this the kind of work a filmmaker would make to attract financing for a chance at making a bigger budget feature based on the same themes?

Certainly not a remake, but one of the reasons I was out of it for fifty years – writing, even got involved in property development and made money elsewhere – was because I never made money from my films, only what I lost in them. I still loved making films. I made last year A Day for the Fire, which was made with the same crew and the some of the same cast about two men sitting in a bar and one telling the other how his son committed suicide. A very powerful film which showed here last year.

I dipped my toe back in the water with that film last year, which went off to Los Angeles in a shortlist for the Oscars. On the strength of that I said that I would work with the same actors. Besides that, all the stories I have filmed are all in the same book. My ultimate aim was to make all the ten stories, like a decalog, like Kieslowski. So it is possible that I might do the remaining seven, but I have another major script called The Caress, which is based on the life of Liam O’Flaherty. It’s a kind of a cross between The Quiet Man and Man of Aran. That is a much bigger film that I want to make with a bigger crew. That is a film that I think would be very commercial and there is no politics in it, it’s more about love, lust and sex. It’s a love triangle.

 

And it’s a period piece?

It’s set in 1935. It’s one of the most commercial stories that might come out. I have been making movies for twenty five years, and they have tried all sorts of things that have never worked. The Americans still love to see Irish period films – in other words, a film like this might do better there than it might here, because they like to see that landscape, hear that music and can’t seem to change their mind that Ireland has become a modern place because then it would simply become another America. They want to see something exotic.

 

Do you find that digital filmmaking has made it easier for The Lord’s Burning Rain to come to life?

Oh, yes. I mean, it was all shot on digital apart from the archive material that had been shot on film. We made that black and white and that was great because it made it look very old, it looked like footage from the twenties – even though it was shot in the eighties. The rest of that stuff was on digital and we didn’t have to fly all the reels to Heathrow Airport like we did with Broken Harvest, which was shot on 35mm. Digital filmmaking has definitely made everything a lot easier, but ultimately it’s not down to the camerawork or even the music, it’s down to the acting and the story.

 

Would you put marketing in that list?

Marketing is important but it can only go so far. But this kind of a movie will hopefully go by word of mouth and hopefully get into the art-house cinemas circuit.

 

Have you been talking to anyone yet?

We have been talking to the IFI and the Light House where we screened the film already. I think RTÉ might want to have a look at it as well. But you’d be surprised. I mentioned the film Pilgrim Hill, it was made for 4,500 euro and won loads of awards. Done on a digital camera and the guy has made deals for Hollywood. We’ve entered The Lord’s Burning Rain in Sundance and will probably be entering it into Tribeca too.

 

The Lord’s Burning Rain screened on 10th November at The Cork Opera House as part of the the 58th Cork Film Festival.

www.corkfilmfest.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

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58th Cork Film Festival: ‘The Lord’s Burning Rain’ & ‘Breaking Ground: the Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre’

 The 58th Cork Film Festival (9 – 17 November)

 

Matt Micucci checks out 2 of the Irish films that screened as part of the 58th Cork Film Festival – Maurice O’Callaghan’s The Lord’s Burning Rain and Michelle Deignan’s Breaking Ground: the Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre.

 

horsefilm-300x168The Lord’s Burning Rain (Maurice O’Callaghan)

 

Modern independent Irish cinema just keeps shining, and Maurice O’Callaghan’s latest film is one of its most challenging and meditative entries. Shot in a rough and rugged guerrilla filmmaking style, The Lord’s Burning Rain is about the journey of a 16-year-old boy as he rides the new family horse to his house on his own.

During the journey, the young male experiences a series of encounters that help him uncover a side of his father and his struggles for Irish independence he was not aware of.

Far from the comfort zone of the vast majority of films that have dealt with the subject in the past, O’Callaghan’s film is quite demanding and many will find its art-house energy alienating. Nevertheless, anyone willing to let themselves be taken by the film’s poignancy and melancholia – as well as the deeply personal nature of the filmmaker’s vision, will find it quite a unique, poetic and exceptionally gratifying experience.

 

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Breaking Ground: the Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre (Michelle Deignan)

A feminist documentary made with an all-female crew, Breaking Ground is a documentary about the London Irish Women’s Centre, which was founded in the early eighties to represent and support generations of Irish women in London. Despite hints at radicalism, Michelle Deignan’s film is far from being a sort of aggressive manifesto.

Breaking Ground comes across as warm and soft-spoken. Deignan interviews the people who were actively involved in the group and makes full use of the primary source archive footage to offer great intimate insight that helps highlight the importance of such support groups and their effect on society.

As a documentary, it doesn’t come across as the kind of powerful work that takes a stance and it’s highly unlikely that it will start any type of revolt – but then again, that is not the kind of film it wants to be.

Breaking Ground feels more like a simple and sincere tribute to the ordinary people of any kind who rise up against discrimination and represent solidarity by having an impact on their community through kindness, harmony and tolerance.

 

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58th Cork Film Festival: ‘Silence is Gold’ & ‘Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton’

The 58th Cork Film Festival (9 – 17 November)

Matt Micucci at the 58th Cork Film Festival reports on Silence is Gold and Big Joy: The Adventures of  James Broughton.

 

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Silence is Gold  (Julien Fréchette)

Silence is Gold is a real-life tale of David and Goliath. Documentarian Julien Fréchette followed the controversial events surrounding the release of a book on Canadian mining companies in Africa called Noir Canada, which saw its writers and publishers sued by giant companies Barrack Gold and Banro.

Rather than being investigative, blatantly picking one side over the other and using an investigative approach, Fréchette carefully chooses to retain a certain distance and mostly play the role of observer. Silence is Gold, in fact, doesn’t really come up with its own conclusions but is rather content with raising certain issues about Canadian mining in Africa, the media and the Canadian juridical system in a way that wants and seeks audience interaction.

The pace is energetic and we witness the events as they happen. This heightens an element of tension and suspense that makes it entertaining in a film that also offers an insightful and intimate look at writer Alan Denault as he carries the weight of the situation on his shoulders with worried, yet faithful, determination.

 

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Big Joy: The Adventures of  James Broughton (Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, Dawn Logson)

 

Who is James Broughton? James Broughton is a poet and poetic filmmaker that time has inexplicably forgotten. And yet, as this wonderful documentary shows, not only is his work delightful but also characteristically unique in its imaginative approach, often quirky and funny but always deep and personal. On top of that, he was also quite a fascinating character whose infectiously positive attitude is faithfully represented in this equally infectiously entertaining film.

Big Joy, in fact, is one of those rare instances where a traditionally structured biographical documentary seems to truly and wholly connect with its character through an imaginative visual approach and a deep understanding of its subject’s joie-de-vivre as well as his internal struggles. Furthermore, it presents a particularly intimate portrayal of his own journey of discovery in his coping with his homosexuality from its painful awakening to his full acceptance and celebration of his idea of universal love and sexuality.

Interviews with his close friends and relatives, footage from his films, lots of great stills from the time and priceless access to pages of his own personal journal allow us to get real close to the late artist. But what is perhaps even more remarkable is the chance that Big Joy offers Broughton to inspire a new generation of followers and artists, much like he did when he was alive.

 

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58th Cork Film Festival: ‘Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction’ & ‘Becoming Traviata’

The 58th Cork Film Festival (9 – 17 November)

Matt Micucci at the 58th Cork Film Festival takes a look at Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction and Becoming Traviata

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 Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (Sophie Huber)

Legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton sits down in front of a camera, sings a few songs, says a few words and a few friends of his share some memories with him. The result goes far beyond it being an intimate and insightful portrayal of a man who has managed to willingly escape the limelight while retaining the respect as a performer he truly deserved.

It also reveals a side of his we may never have known, such as his down-to-earth personality, his almost self-deprecating humbleness when talking about his memorable past roles, and his heartfelt passion for music. Partly Fiction also comes across as very imaginative and gratifying due to its naturalistic flow and an air of wise and sincere tranquillity. This deeply differentiates it from the countless more conventionally structured biographical documentaries and arguably even makes it more rewarding.

Sophie Huber’s work also enjoys some priceless contributions from big names such as David Lynch, Debbie Harry, Wim Wenders and Kris Kristofferson.

 

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Becoming Traviata (Philippe Béziat)

Becoming Traviata is certainly one of the most riveting and imaginative ways in which documentary has ever presented the creative process of opera productions and the passion and talent of each individual involved in it. Filmmaker Béziat employs a fly-on-the-wall approach in following the preparations of a staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterwork La Traviata at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France.

He particularly focuses on celebrated opera singer Natalie Dessay as she prepares to take on the leading role of Violetta. Her presence is powerful and magnetic, yet it is far from being the conventional representation of the ‘diva’ opera singer. In fact, Becoming Traviata offers a revelation of the world of opera that is far from the snobbery and pretentiousness that it is sometimes identified with. It is rather presented as a disciplined and sometimes demanding yet joyful and exciting expression of artistic freedom and, in this case, the re-interpretation and modernisation of the mise-en-scene of one of the most recognised and praised works in the history of classical music.

Admittedly, the film opens to a riveting crescendo and reaches an enthusiastic height in its beginning that it sometimes struggles to match as it progresses. Nevertheless, the structure of the film that unfolds with and remains faithful to the emotional charge and intensity of the opera work makes it entertaining throughout as we get to follow the parallel physical and emotional developments of both the behind-the-scene machinations and the Italian composer’s original vision. And (is there any need to say it) the music itself is sublime.

 

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The 58th Cork Film Festival: Nebraska

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The 58th Cork Film Festival (9 – 17 November)

Matt Micucci begins his coverage of the 58th Cork Film Festival with a report from the festival’s opening film, Nebraska by Alexander Payne.

On Saturday night the 58th Cork Film Festival got off to a great start with its opening film, Nebraska by Alexander Payne – a remarkable intimate portrayal that is as harrowing as it is humorous. Genuinely touching, nostalgic and very funny, this surely figures among the filmmaker’s best works to date.

Throughout his celebrated career, Payne has characteristically been concerned with troubled and seemingly deeply unsatisfied individuals who have problems coming to terms with their decadent realities –  a fruit of a monotonous and largely unfulfilling life. Even in The Descendants, set among the wealthier class of the paradisiacal Hawaii, Matt King, played by a George Clooney at his best, famously stated where he thought paradise could go. One of Payne’s greatest assets, drawing from his acclaimed talent from screenwriting, has been this delicacy of making the silences and the unspoken words between the characters as relevant, if not more relevant, than the actual words.

This quality of Payne’s must have come from his own birthplace. Payne was born in Nebraska and set most of his previous films there from Citizen Ruth to About Schmidt. It is a place renowned for its overall quietness. Just think about Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album – one of the most introvert and soul-searching albums in the history of modern music. Cinematically speaking, the setting is identifiable by its grey skies, its small towns and this solemn and meditative silence and dullness that is neither frowned upon nor celebrated by its inhabitants. At some point in the film, the editor of a local newspaper openly admits to lead character David that people pick up drinking there because there is not much else to do.

This film is the story of David Grant (Will Forte), one of many men with a dull and thankless job, who is afraid to commit to a serious relationship and marry his girlfriend. She, in the meantime, has upped and left him, frustrated by his lack of will to commit. As if his life wasn’t frustrating enough, his father Woody (Bruce Dern) constantly concerns him and the rest of his family with his stubborn behaviour. An ageing old man, showing the signs of vulnerability from a history of alcoholism, he not only fully believes that he has won a million dollars upon receiving a marketing scam letter. He is also determined to get to Lincoln and collect his money himself, even if he has to get there on foot.

Despite all this, David is still quiet and almost content on the outside. He is very sympathetic to his father’s situation. While he understands the concern his runaways down the highway cause, he eventually gives into his father’s wishes and agrees to take him to Lincoln himself. Though he knows well that there won’t be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, he is quite happy to be spending time with his father and looks after him out of kindness even after an accident leads them to having to stop in his old hometown at an aunt’s house. It is there that Woody rekindles with his past.

There is a lot that ties the character of Woody to the character played by Jack Nicholson from About Schmidt. They are both soft spoken and both quietly submitted to people taking advantage of them. As well as that, both were subjected to constant psychological beatings that visibly left them in a state of near alienation. The major difference between the two films lies in the journey itself. In Nicholson’s film, Warren Schmidt, on his way to his estranged daughter’s wedding, embarked on a journey of self-discovery. The journey in Nebraska is not Woody’s – it’s David’s. David is the one who almost unexpectedly discovers a side to his father he had never really known. This also gives him an opportunity to give his father an image that goes beyond the negative memories of boozing and overall carelessness; a fact that is particularly powerful when considering that he knows that his father has little time left to live. That is why he keeps the journey up and often even shares his excitement of an illusion. Perhaps this to him too is an illusion, but it is as welcome as his father’s one for his hopelessly coveted million.

This intimate portrayal is made even deeper by the performances. Will Forte of Saturday Night Live fame is on his way to becoming one of the best newcomers in American cinema. He shows great versatility in his portrayal of emotional devotion and good-natured loyalty. On top of that, Bruce Dern gives the best performance of his whole career as Woody. It is a performance of restraint, a performance of tragedy and comedy combined. All his lines are delivered with such finesse that they could at once be tragic and laugh-out-loud hilarious. The same can be said about his fish-eyed stares, often lost in his own world, hardly paying attention to what is going on around him. The physicality of his performance is also praiseworthy – his goofy but determined walk recalls slapstick comedians but also takes us back to the seriousness of his character’s physical and mental weaknesses, in a film where we, as the audience, are constantly conflicted by the tragicomedy of realism.

The support cast is equally great. There are times when June Squibb as Woody’s nagging wife Kate steals the show. It’s quite entertaining to see her giving out about her husband right to his face, yet even more rewarding to see those occasional moments when she puts her moaning aside and shows those brief, yet sweet, moments of tenderness to not only her husband but also David and his older brother (Bob Odenkirk). This reveals Kate as the strong woman of the house, perhaps the strongest character in the whole film but also certainly the undisputed leader of the pack. On that note, it is amusing to note her stints into ‘potty mouth’ territory with hilariously rude remarks that reveal a little trend in modern cinema after Judi Dench’s performance in Philomena.

Nostalgia is one of the prevailing moods of this film. This is not only due to the great screenplay but also through a wonderful use of black and white cinematography. This adds a sense of melancholia and poetry in shots of lonely diners, empty taverns or the wide use of landscape shots. It recalls the small town melodrama of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Payne’s film could well have spun out of that generation and this could be its unofficial Nebraska-based sequel set many times in the future. But perhaps more than that, it stands as a modernisation of Italian neo-realism. In particular, Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece The Bicycle Thief. There are countless ways in which the father-son relationships in the two movies match up – however, the biggest comparison lies once again in the hopeless journey. At the end of the day, David would love to get his dad that million, just like young Bruno would love to find his father’s bicycle in De Sica’s work.

Despite its melancholia and underlying sadness, Nebraska is quite optimistic. It’s a high spirited drama, almost more a touching comedy than a drama in itself. Its positive outlook on life is universally crowd pleasing, yet never in an obvious way. Some of Payne’s previous works have certainly been met with more anticipation and more clamour, yet it is also this essential lack of vulgar media buzz surrounding the film that heightens the power of the experience. In fact, premature commotion would have drastically affected the quiet nature of Nebraska and altered its identity.

www.corkfilmfest.org

Check out our Cork Film Festival coverage here

 

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BFI London Film Festival: ‘Salvo’ & ‘My Class’

Matt Micucci continues his report from the BFI London Film Festival with a look at Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Salvo and Daniele Gaglianone’s My Class.

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Salvo (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza)

Set in hot Palermo, this is the story of a cold-blooded killer who gets himself into trouble with his own people when he can’t kill off the blind sister of a man who tried to murder him. Conveying the element of the girl’s blindness, the film is quite a sensorial experience that drifts away from the usual cinematic language by putting less emphasis on dialogue and more on creating a compelling atmosphere moved forward by the titular character’s conflict of emotions.

Without disregarding its moments of tension and an intense show down, what seems to start as a violent gangster film becomes a hopelessly tragic love story that is at once harrowing and charming. Saleh Bakri is an excellent choice as Salvo, and delivers a penetrating performance as the man of few words, one that recalls Clint Eastwood in the renowned Sergio Leone Dollars trilogy.

 

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My Class (Daniele Gaglianone)

Gaglianone takes on an issue as difficult, particularly in Italy, as immigration by filming in a real classroom where immigrants learn English but with a fake teacher, one of contemporary Italian cinema’s greatest actors Valerio Mastrandrea. In My Class, the documentary intersects naturally within the artificial narrative structure, and as a result the film ends up becoming a most inventive and powerful exercise in docufiction.

There are many laughs and many tears. One may be inclined to think that Gaglianone actually comes across as a winner only in selfish terms – the message the film carries is far too grand for the artistic vision he has in mind and sometimes he may comes across as slightly exploitational as well as self-apologetic, particularly in a sequence where he fails to help an African man get his work permit renewed. Yet, in knocking boundaries, he is quite successful in making a subject so difficult to understand suddenly universal and showing a helplessness and frustration that goes along with dealing with this particular subject.

My Class is uncomfortable, perhaps even controversial, but the simple fact that it raises such an important issue makes it brave and ambitious.

On a side note, considering the factor of the Italian language classroom, somehow remarkably manages not to restrict its audience in the international film and not much of the appeal of the film’s dialogue is lost in translation.

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BFI London Film Festival: ‘Abuse of Weakness’ & ‘Don Jon’

Matt Micucci checks out Catherine Breillat’s latest, ‘Abuse of Weakness’ and ‘Don Jon’, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s feature film debut, which screened at the 56th BFI London Film Festival

 

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Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat)

Catherine Breillat gets more personal than she has ever been in her entire career in her latest film Abuse of Weakness. The story is almost entirely autobiographical, and one of the only things that are changed are the names.

Maud is a director who suffers a stroke. As she is recovering, she watches a con artist being interviewed on television and starts entertaining the idea of casting him in the lead part of her new film project. Soon enough the two become acquainted and she finds herself willingly loaning him large sums of money.

Despite the nature of the story, Breillat is neither spiteful nor vengeful in her telling of the events. In fact, she even points to the fact that she might have had it coming. Nevertheless, she seems to be entirely focused on making the whole story seem very authentic and avoids stylistic embellishments. Breillat also avoids her characteristic strange casting antics by giving the  role of her cinematic alter ego to one of the best French actresses of the last twenty years, Isabelle Huppert. Her performance as the proud yet vulnerable Maud is quite remarkable, particularly due to the role’s physically demanding nature. The same cannot be said about Kool Shen, the French rapper who lacks the ability to make the con artist seem a charmer or a rogue. The two end up lacking chemistry and this makes the film drag particularly in its seemingly interminable middle part.

However, Breillat can still be praised for her honesty and for bringing her own personal experiences on the big screen, coming close to a documentary style and unafraid of seeming uncomfortable.

 

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Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Gordon-Levitt, one of the brightest stars of this generation of American cinema, has made the transition in his feature film debut as director and screenwriter. Don Jon is the story of a guy who, despite his womanising streak, still loves porn better than real sex.

Apparently influenced by early Scorsese films and Saturday Night Fever, Don Jon plays around with interesting elements – among them even the theme of religion. Yet, despite the premise, this is hardly a compelling examination of modern society but rather a nicely packaged romantic comedy with a childish obsession for sexual taboos. Furthermore, its nature is quite bigoted.

Scarlett Johansson in her turn as the titular character’s object of desire delivers a fun and vibrant performance and is among the best things in the film. However, Don Jon can’t help but feel disappointing, most of all for being provocative rather than daring and for using an approach as realistic as the clips that its lead character obsesses over.

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BFI London Film Festival: ‘B for Boy’ and ‘Good ‘Ol Freda’

Matt Micucci continues his reports from the 56th BFI London Film Festival with a look at B for Boy and GoodOl Freda

B for Boy  (Chika Anadu)

Set in Nigeria, this is the story of a pregnant woman approaching her 40th birthday. Because this will probably be her last chance at having a baby, she desperately needs it to be a boy due to cultural and religious pressures that might break up her whole family.

B for Boy offers insight into another culture and into an issue that is perhaps not discussed much on this side of the world. It also represents the best side of Nollywood, which aims to bring the dilemmas of the modern African population to the screen. Anadu’s film is a very powerful and brave examination of Nigerian culture and the discrimination that is suffered by women as a result of a remaining retrograde cultural mentality.

This intimate domestic drama really lets the desperation and frustration of the situation sink in with the viewer through an unhurried and yet intense pace. The performances by the cast enhance the film’s emotional depth, which, despite its occasional ruggedness and imperfection, is quite remarkable and certainly accessible to a broader international audience.

 

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GoodOl Freda  (Ryan White)

Does the name Freda Kelly sound familiar? No? Maybe it’s because she hasn’t told her story in fifty years. Freda was the Beatles’ secretary and manager of the fan club throughout most of their career, from their early days of The Cavern to their split up. At some point in the film someone says that Freda’s story will be the last great story left to tell about The Beatles. Somehow, this is doubtful, as the story of the legendary Fab Four has been told time and time again in all manners and forms.

Unfortunately, it is also untrue that this is a great story at all – good ol’ Freda is a sweet natured woman but she doesn’t offer the kind of priceless insight that a fan would hope for.

What is very rewarding about the film is the loving and humble way in which she gives her own first-hand account of the times and it is lovely to see her eyes sparkle with joy and happiness as she remembers the band and those riveting wonderful days of her exciting youth.

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BFI London Film Festival: It’s All So Quiet’ & ‘The Last Impressario’

Matt Micucci continues his reports from the 56th BFI London Film Festival with a look at It’s All So Quiet and The Last Impressario.

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It’s All So Quiet –  Nanouk Leopold

As implied in the title, all is quiet and hushed in Leopold’s film about a middle aged farmer living in the Dutch countryside with his ill elderly father, whom he is forced to take care of. Here, we follow his attempts at renovating his stale and monotonous life of isolation as well as the re-discovery of homosexual feelings he has kept repressed and fought against all his life.

The pace of the film is widely unhurried, and this choice seems to respect the natural pace dictated by Helmer, the lead characters, and his lifestyle. This choice of realism can be quite demanding for some but ultimately proves to be rewarding. Of course, the experiment would have failed had it not been for the recently deceased Jeroen Willens, who carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders with a solemn intimate performance that also serves as a final testimony to his talent.

 

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The Last Impressario – Gracie Otto

A documentary on the life and time of Michael White, a renowned and groundbreaking theatre and film impresario who is also regarded as a London trend setter and a lover of social gatherings and parties. The Last Impresario is part of a number of biographical documentaries presented at this year’s London Film Festival.

Despite some structural difficulties, which particularly seems confusing in its beginning, it picks up and ends up being quite an interesting portrayal about a man who essentially made his fortune by refusing to grow up and dreading old age. The sadness of this tale, of course, is that in the end this common tragedy caught up to him, and Gracie Otto interviews him as a man weakened by a stroke and side effects of his lifestyle, living among the memories of his pictures and memorabilia of a time gone by.

Big names such as Naomi Watts, John Waters, John Cleese and Kate Moss give great contributions that help uncover the intimate side of ‘the famous man you have never heard of’.

Matt Micucci

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Cinema Review: The Selfish Giant

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DIR: Clio Barnard • WRI: Steven Knight • PRO: Tracy O’Riordan • DOP: Mike Eley • ED: Nick Fenton • MUS: Joby Talbot • DES: Helen Scott • CAST: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Lorraine Ashbourne

 

There is a reason why Clio Barnard refers to the famous Oscar Wilde fable in its title. Apart from its structural core and various story references, it also points out to Barnard’s desire to represent children in a more realistic and compelling way. In the presentation of the film at the Venice Film Festival, she spoke about one of her starting points for the making of this film being a sudden inspiration she experienced while watching films like The Kid with a Bike by the Dardenne brothers and Kes by Ken Loach. She was then convinced that children could watch films that were a little more challenging and more rewarding than the usual stuff they seem to be force-fed by society. Indeed, it is a little frustrating to notice that most films about children, or at least the ones that are pushed so aggressively by marketing, hardly seem neither compelling nor representational.

The Selfish Giant is about two marginalised young teens Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), both from the more impoverished tough estates of Bradford. Both have a reputation as troublemakers and after getting into trouble one time too many, they find themselves excluded from school. This leads them almost methodically into the dangerous world of metal scrappage, working for an scrapyard owner and exploiter who calls himself Kitten (Sean Gilder).

Barnard’s first narrative feature film is a representation of a darker side of adolescence, yet it is as much to the eyes of the world a representation of a darker side of Britain far from the glamour of Royal Weddings and bohemian lifestyles. By showing such a harrowing cultural context she follows up in the tradition of the gritty Ken Loach dramas and of course especially draws parallels with the classic Kes. Both of these films also denounce the dangers of a strict and negligent education system. Furthermore, the two films are born out of a harsh, unsympathetic and cold-hearted world. It is the kind of setting where children have no choice but to grow up fast, or start idolising the wrong people. This particular point is illustrated by the ambivalence of the character of Kitten, who is undoubtedly exploitative and yet is treated with Machiavellian respect by the youngsters who steal cable for him from railway lines and electric stations.

To bring the story on the big screen, Barnard makes little use of technical embellishments. She employs a realist style which makes use of a lot of handheld shots and heightens the power of its story. Even the characters communicate in a Bradford slang that is sometimes indecipherable but adds to the genuineness of the experience. All these artistic choices give the film a sense of meaningful immediacy that were influenced by the director’s own background in documentary.

Yet, the relatively simple structure of the film makes it quite accessible on a narrative scale. Hence, we may even draw parallels with the Italian neo realists and a type of dramatic beauty portrayed in the classics by Vittorio de Sica like Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief. The parallel makes even more sense when we take note of the warmth and humanity revealed by the friendship between Arbor and Swifty. Clio Barnard even went so far as to describe their relationship as ‘platonic love’.

The loyalty they have for each other is truly touching. At the start of the film we see Arbor, the angry and aggressive one of the duo, having a nervous breakdown. The only one able to comfort him is the calmer Swifty who holds his hand and eventually calms him down. Arbor on the other hand sticks up for Swifty, who is a regular target for schoolyard bullies. It is on one of these instances, in fact, that the two are excluded from school.

Physically, Arbor being skinny and Swifty being more rotund, they are reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. The classic slapstick duo too almost always found themselves in similar degrading situations; they too having been somewhat marginalised by a post-American Great Depression society. Both Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas had never acted before, which makes their hard-hitting yet sensible performances all the more impressive.

This film, as the title implies, is a fable – but not quite the kind of sweet natured fable we are used to. The Selfish Giant is a story of the depraved and the unglamorous. The people that society, and even cinema, often forgets about. It’s a haunting bleak vision of the world which will no doubt have an influence on the way certain subjects will be tackled in cinema in the future. As well as that, despite its clear geographic setting, it has a captivating universal feel. It is also for this reason that this film, which affirms Clio Barnard as one of Britain’s most talented new cineastes, was also picked as one of the finalists for this edition of the Lux Prize.

Matt Micucci

12A (See IFCO for details)

96 mins

The Selfish Giant  is released on 25th October 2013

 

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BFI London Film Festival: ‘The Double’ & ‘Ida’

 

Matt Micucci continues his reports from the 56th BFI London Film Festival with a look at  Richard Ayoade‘s The Double and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida.

 

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The Double – Richard Ayoade

Richard Ayoade’s follows up his widely acclaimed debut feature Submarine with another stylised film that deals with obsession, love rivalry and psychopathy. Based on Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, this is the story of an irreparably shy and downtrodden young office clerk hopelessly in love with a colleague, Hannah, whom he is fixated upon but whose presence despairingly intimidates and mortifies him. His difficult life is made all the more difficult when a new worker who looks exactly like him but has a complete opposite and extrovert personality is hired and takes advantage of him in any way he can, by exploiting his office work to climb through the company ranks and even stealing the woman he loves.

The Double is remarkably overflowing with creativity and a visual style that recalls the classic film noir, or even the thriller dramas of the late mute period, but also flirts with the bizarreness of the science fiction works of Terry Gilliam, particularly in the creation of a mostly timeless American setting. The way it is composed and structured, whether it is in the mise en scene of each frame or in the narrative developments of the story itself, is fearlessly obvious yet its confidence and exciting pace makes it gripping and entertaining all throughout.

On top of that, it has a sweet and romantic inner core that ensures The Double’s irresistible charm, which completes the stylish nature of Ayoade’s direction. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast in this film, and shows amazing versatility and skill in his portrayal of two characters who look and dress exactly the same but who are radically different in nature and purpose. In fact, it is obvious that without the strength of Eisenberg’s performance the film would have crumbled and lost credibility.

 

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Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski

Anna, a young girl brought up in a convent, is just about to take her vows and become a nun. Before she does, her Mother Superior insists that she try to reconnect with her last remaining relative, her aunt Wanda, who an intellectual and strong woman. After some initial hostility, the two set off on a road trip looking for the place where Anna’s parents were executed and buried during the Second World War.

Pawlikowski’s latest work feels like a journey of a character’s self-discovery but also a journey through Poland’s historical conscience. Shot in glorious black and white photography, each frame is carefully composed and adds a poetic depth to the narrative and conveys the careful structure of the character development.

All the while, Kulesza and Trzebuchowska share wonderful chemistry in their moments of soft spoken melancholia and pathos with their performances of their respective characters, who have radically opposed personalities, that conveys Ida’s lack of emotional obviousness in favour of a more honest and touching approach.

Matt Micucci

 

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BFI London Film Festival

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Matt Micucci continues his reports from the 56th BFI London Film Festival with a look at Youth and Terry Gilliam’s latest film The Zero Theorem.

Youth – Tom Shoval

With his feature film debut, Tom Shoval paints a realistic picture of dangerous every day culture of Israel and its youth culture but neither pontificating not inaccessible to an international audience. It is the story of two brothers living on the outskirts of Tel Aviv who come up with a plan to kidnap a girl to help their family’s financial struggles and the problems of their unemployed father. To the them, this plan is almost a game, and their job is made all the easier by the fact that one of them enlists in the army and is presented a rifle. Quite remarkably the film never seems to unravel with great urgency but remains absorbing mostly thanks to the great juxtaposition of the domestic drama elements with the kidnapping thriller. It is also interesting to see a distressing sense of humour in a film that uses a realistic approach in style and content. To the two brothers, this kidnapping plot is nothing more than a game; the haunting element is the fact that they are given a rifle in the first place.

 

The Zero Theorem – Terry Gilliam

The Zero Theorem has been bashed in some circles mostly composed of the same old tirades that accompany analysis of most of Gilliam’s works and point a vulgar finger towards faults that could be summed up in one expression – over indulgence. Yet, in reality, The Zero Theorem seems to be the most rewarding work the visionary filmmaker has made in at least ten years.

The film is set in a ‘timeless future’ world, which nicely draws parallels with what is arguably his ultimate masterpiece Brazil, a film with which it shares a lot of the same the same comments and concerns on the martyrdom of the working class. Christoph Weitz plays a man who is visibly physically and mentally scarred, perhaps by a self-imposed illness due to a somewhat masochistic lifestyle that sees him leading and empty existence in perpetual attendance of a call that might reveal to him the meaning of life.

While the ethical observations on the frustration of the working class, which touches on many themes such as religion, love and sex, is nothing particularly new, Gilliam successfully brings Pat Rushin’s screenplay to life in the most creative of ways and manages to keep the film together and compact. On top of that, the restricted size of the budget leads to a wonderful and unique art direction and overall visual look that feels unusual and fresh in the science fiction genre.

Furthermore, a hairless Christoph Weitz turns in a brave lead performance as the computer genius and shows a great connection with Gilliam and his imagination.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLYkXhgFIAk

Matt Micucci

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BFI London Film Festival

Matt Micucci continues his reports from the 56th BFI London Film Festival with a look at Starred Up, Ilo Ilo & Like Father, Like Son.

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Starred Up – David MacKenzie

David MacKenzie takes the essence of the domestic drama of a difficult father son relationship and confines it to the tense and claustrophobic setting of a prison. Starred Up is the story of a rebellious teenage inmate whose angry life deteriorates when he is transferred to the same prison as his father. The father’s attempts at helping his son, in fact, seem to do nothing but fuel Eric’s rage even more and risk putting him into more trouble with the guards. MacKenzie digs deep within the psychology of the characters and their somewhat distorted and selfish priorities. In the end, this testosterone filled drama is also a harrowing and hard-hitting intimate portrayal made even deeper and more compelling by the wonderful magnetic performances of Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn who invest body and soul in their honest and sometimes disturbing interpretations of father and son.

 

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Ilo Ilo – Anthony Chen

Set in Singapore, a working couple decide that they need a live in maid to do chores around the house and help them look after their young troublesome kid. However, as this intimate family portrait in which we get a glimpse of the everyday struggles of each of the main four characters progresses, we soon realise that the couple is seriously struggling on both emotional and financial grounds particularly stressed by the lack of job opportunities and another child on the way.  In spite of the seriousness of some of the domestic subject which it deals with, such as insecurities and disenchantments, Anthony Chen’s impressive feature film debut is both emotional and humorous. In fact, sometimes Ilo Ilo feels like a satirical take on the self imposed everyday struggles of modern families and their vulnerable natures which occasionally leads them down self-destructive paths and to having to deal with small or big crises.

 

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Like Father, Like Son – Hirokazu Kore-eda

The lives of two very different Japanese families are shaken when they discover six years later that a mix up in a hospital inadvertently swapped their two male babies. This bombshell inevitably leads to much psychological and emotional distress on both sides of the story, and especially in the father of one of the families who is led down a road of deep and meaningful re-evaluations of fatherhood as well as reflection own struggles with exposing his own emotions. After dealing with the separation of a pair of young siblings in his previous work I Wish, Kore-eda returns to the domestic drama territory in a profoundly moving film. However, apart from the story and thought provoking discourse, which also carefully contrasts family traditionalism with modernism, the filmmaker also employs a tasteful kind of style in bringing the story to the screen which is tastefully defined and doesn’t shift the attention away from the intimacy of the meditative nature of Like Father, Like Son and its difficult themes.

Matt Micucci

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BFI London Film Festival: Blue is the Warmest Colour

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Matt Micucci see what all the fuss is about Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour.

Ever since it was presented at Cannes, where it was awarded the Palme d’Or, Blue is the Warmest Colour has held a reputation as a controversial film. This is particularly due to the lengthy and explicit lesbian sex scenes that take place throughout the film. However, this is a rather dismissive reputation as well as quite simply a huge mistake, which ignores the intimacy that Kechiche allows his characters to portray on the big screen by breaking conventional boundaries and building new bridges with a modern audience in connecting with romance on a new level.

Blue is the Warmest Colour is, after all, a film that tells the story of a heartfelt romance between two homosexual women from the school days to early adulthood. Adele (Adéle Exarchoupoulos) is only fifteen when she first sees and is instantly gobsmacked by the older and more confident art student Emma (Léa Seydoux). It is through her that she experiences a sexual awakening and out of their initial attraction a touching and heartfelt love story develops.

The story comes from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, yet it has been noted that the cinematic version is closer to being modified by director Kechiche’s own concerns about class and society. It certainly feels that way, not least of all because it is very clear from the film that he is not simply content with portraying or observing this love story. What he aims to achieve is a careful examination of a romance, the mysterious reasons for magnetic attraction, the consequences of such magnetism and the forces which in the end may or may not work against it.

To achieve this, he is not afraid to take his sweet time in establishing a realistic perception of the girls’ feelings for one another. However, despite the hubbub, this is not only achieved through dragged out and admittedly inventive sex scenes. Kechiche also lets the scenes where the two girls converse, share their mutual feelings and contrasting opinions breathe. Although it is not at all surprising that this factor has not drawn as much attention, it is something very important to point out. In the end not only does this effectively expose the bond and the strengthening of the bond between the girls but also perfectly balances the sacred vows of romance with what is more openly unholy but equally as important.

If we were to link it with the history of French cinema, we could see Blue is the Warmest Colour as a continuation of what the greats of the French New Wave tried to establish with their trendy representation of many of the same themes and elements. We can particularly trace a direct link with Jean Eustache’s work, especially The Mother and the Whore – which incidentally also touched on homosexuality towards the end although perhaps more intended as a way of self-discovery or expression of freedom. What really links these two films  is the use of somewhat similar approaches in establishing their points, particularly by letting each individual scene breathe and develop naturally and at its own pace. As a consuquence, both of these films exceed the three hours mark but remain entrancingly gripping both on an emotional and philosophical level.

Admittedly, there are moments where Kechiche’s composition falters. Despite his heartfelt connection with the theme of adolescence, the film’s scenes that take place in the classroom feel constructed and reek of obviousness. Much in the same element, and perhaps more disappointingly, the distracting overuse of the colour blue carries a cleverness that falls half way between student film territory and TV advert wit.

Nevertheless, despite the few imperfections and over indulgences, it is quite remarkable how the structure of the film contributes to it being so absorbing. This achievement is also aided by Kechiche’s intent in making the story look trendy and modern with a wide use of bright colour schemes that give the film a stylish look. However, he remains true to his aim of representing a faithful side of romanticism by using widely unobtrusive camerawork and leaving over stylised cinematography out of it. This is perhaps what makes the sex scenes so crude and eccentric but also what captures the film’s convincing warmth.

Of course, at this point it is only fair to point out the performances delivered by the beautiful Adéle Exarchoupoulos and Léa Seydoux. They are both simply remarkable, not only because they certainly deliver the brave performances that were required to hold the film together and make the pivotal love story credible, but also because of the wonderful sexual chemistry and tenderness that they share. There is no doubt that these two will potentially become cultural symbols of modern romanticism whether the censorship boards like it or not.

Yes, there is a lot of steamy sex in this film. However, the theme of homosexuality has certainly not been exploited. By the end of the film, all the noise about its racy nature will hardly matter. The bigger picture is much more passionate, engrossing and overall rewarding. While it is true that Blue is the Warmest Colour’s shameless zeal occasionally gives into excess, it is also true that it’s easy to forgive a film that can widely remain so intimately and profoundly captivating as well as extraordinarily compact despite its over three-hour length and the many dangers which threatened to make the film’s architecture clumsily crumble.

 Matt Micucci

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BFI London Film Festival

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The 57th BFI London Film Festival

 

Matt Micucci checks out Captain Phillips, The Do Gooders, How We Used to Live, and Sacro GRA.

 

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
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With his latest work, Greengrass takes his usual genuine and urgent brand of intensity to the high seas, where his trademark disorienting yet focused camerawork and frantic editing techniques seem particularly suited. This film is based on the true story of Richard Phillips, the captain of a US container ship hijacked off the coast of Somalia by a crew of Somali pirates in 2009. The sharp change in atmosphere from exciting to claustrophobic as the film’s action shifts from the container ship to the lifeboat is arguably exhausting. However, one cannot help but admire Greengrass for avoiding the usual clichéd observations and cinematic structuring in bringing this story and the heavy themes and cultural contexts that come with it to the screen. In the end, Captain Phillips is a story of an American hero who is not necessarily an adventurer but is forced to become one through frightening developments, and Tom Hanks brings that man to life in a forceful way. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi in his role as the leader of the pirates is equally as magnetic, and the two’s exchanges are truly powerful in their understated way.

 

The Do Gooders (Chloe Ruthven)

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Using her own grandparents’ aid work in Palestine as a starting point, documentarian Chloe Ruthven embarks on her own personal journey through the Palestinian Israeli conflict. The end result is shaped very much like a subjective video diary of which its most notable aspect is the relationship between Ruthven and a Palestinian woman Lubna, who is fiercly critical of Western aid to Palestine, and their cultural differences. In the end, The Do Gooders could be seen as slightly confused and even inconclusive film on a strictly political and even investigative point of view, but that would perhaps be missing the point. In fact, The Do Gooders is a sometimes harrowing revelation of the conscience and soul of the documentarian, exposed in a genuine way that has perhaps never been seen before.

 

How We Used to Live (Paul Kelly)

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A charming, touching and nostalgic love letter or romantic tribute to London by director Paul Kelly made in collaboration with the BFI national archive. How We Used to Live is almost entirely made up of archive material and Ian McShane’s narration. The result is wonderfully hypnotic, very romantic and sometimes even warmly satirical. Kelly is especially successful in matching up the music with the footage of the city’s history, in a style that is very reminiscent of the city symphony films from the early days of film. It is also very successful in showing just how important national archive material is in preserving a nation’s identity and providing a great starting point for new films and new artistic projects.

Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi)

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A decadent nobleman, a transvestite prostitute, a botanist on a mission to save palm trees from insect infestation, a kind-hearted paramedic. They are only four of the many colourful characters who live in the areas around Rome’s famous Ring Road followed by Gianfranco Rosi in his latest work. This year’s Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival, the first documentary to win the coveted prize, Sacro GRA feels as much like a tender and heartfelt look at these everyday people as it does an enchanting portrayal of the magical side and uniqueness of these individuals. It also feels like the more realistic spin on the familiar multiple plotline structure that is prominent in fiction filmmaking but never feels as genuine and harrowing as it does in this documentary. Furthermore, its wonderful and careful photography makes it seem like a touching and entertaining narrative drama that is often at once funny and tragic – an approach that both reveals and flatters Rosi’s scope of seeking and showing the beauty of the comedy and drama of everyday life.

Matt Micucci

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A Look Back at IFI Stranger Than Fiction 2013

IFI Stranger Than Fiction (26 – 29 Sep, 2013)

Matt Micucci looks back at some of the highlights from this year’s IFI Stranger Than Fiction film festival.

Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panther

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Havana Marking takes us right into the world of one of the most impressive organised gang of jewel thieves of all times, the Pink Panthers. Through its clever and hip mixtures of elements from real life surveillance footage to a fascinating use of animation, this film is an original look at organised crime with a modern and exciting feel. Yet, there is more than an impressive and creative visual style to the Smash and Grab experience. Apart from the enriching and pricelessly insightful interviews with real members of the Pink Panthers, Marking also offers an interesting and original viewpoint on the figure of the criminal by digging deep within their personalities, their cultural background and even their place in history, exposing them as flawed and as vulnerable as any other human being.

 

After Tiller

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In a debate that is usually embittered by preconceptions, it’s easy to forget that there are human beings with human feelings, emotions and connection behind each individual abortion. Martha Shane and Lana Wilson with their intense work tell the difficult but real story of third-trimester abortions by following the work of the few doctors who carry out such procedures and its starting point is the murder of one of the few such doctors, George Tiller. According to its subject, this documentary should come across as controversial, especially because of its one-sided approach in a two-sided debate. Yet, it’s hard to ignore its honest and convincing portrayal of real feelings and human warmth that alone make a convincing case. It’s also more than admirable that a film like this should be so refreshingly soft spoken, in this fierce debate about life where aggressiveness and hatred are aplenty.

Where the Blue Flowers Grow
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First time filmmaker Isolda Healey followed the Irish Wicklow band The Cujo Family for three years, along with their trials and triumphs, their trip to New York for a series of gigs and the band’s different lineups. Where the Blue Flowers Grow is an exhilarating piece of guerrilla documentary filmmaking that also feels like a purifying experience within the music documentary genre, which is often plagued by a self-gratifying type of snobbery. It’s a work of authenticity that is succesful at capturing the genuine hopes, dreams, friendships and ambitions of a band with an inevitable genuine hint of nostalgia. Its imperfections add to its authenticity. In fact, it seems right to find some unwritten bond between the evolution of the band and the improvement of the technology employed. 

Here Was Cuba

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It happened more than fifty years ago, yet the story is still as bone chillingly shocking as ever. Emer Reynolds and John Murray’s careful examination of the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis event, which took place during the Cold War, offers perhaps the most complete and insightful look at the time when the world came closest to self-destruction. Not only is it oustandingly insightful thanks to the interviews of men who had a direct link with or played a part in the crisis, but also because of its use of primary source material such as archive video, audio and documentations – some making a ‘feature film debut’ – that reveal more haunting and intimate sides to the story. In addition, Here Was Cuba also draws up some troubling parallels with present times by making observations on to the fragility and dangers of the trust we place upon the leaders of the world. However, be warned! This is no textbook history lesson, and thanks to an exciting rhythm as well as a fair share of intensity and suspense, this documentary is as entertaining and gripping as a great fictional Cold War thriller.

 

Dragon Girls

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A respectful and tender look at the lives of the young female students at the Shaolin Kung Fu school which is regarded as the birthplace of kung fu. Unsurprisingly, considering Westmeier’s acclaimed background as a cinematographer, the film is of a rare beauty. It comes across as an intimate and reverential look at a different culture, but also at the school itself and its inhabitants, whether it is when filming the 35,000 students lined up as disciplined soldiers or the face of a girl forcefully restraining the tears overcome with the stress induced by the hard training and the sadness of being so far from home – not to mention that the camera moves as smoothly as brushstrokes on a canvas in the scenes where the girls reveal their amazing martial arts skills through exhibitions that could easily be defined as nothing short of poetic. It is also amazing to see how close Westmeier was able to get to the girls, whose childish warmth cannot be concealed by the tough training and hard lives they must endure. Yet, the enjoyment and gratification of Dragon Girls also comes down to his great choice of respecting the foreign Shaolin tradition by not giving into facile judgemental viewpoints and conclusions dictated by Western world ethics.

Matt Micucci

 

 

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8×8 Documentary Film Festival: ‘Which Way is the Front Line From Here’

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Matt Micucci reports from the recent 8×8 Documentary Film Festival screening of Which Way is the Front Line From Here, a film focusing on Tim Hetherington, the British photojournalist.  The screening was attended by the film’s producer, James Brabazon, who spoke about Tim Hetherington and the difficulty and dangers of working as a front line photojournalist.

Tim Hetherington was a British photojournalist whose works revolutionised the way people looked at the frontline. His work ranged from videos to still photography, which he shot using many different types of equipment, and closely portrayed in humanity and authenticity violent conflict and revealed a hidden side to war. His career reached a highpoint when Restrepo, a documentary he co-directed with Sebastian Junger, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. Yet, just as his reputation and worldwide acclaim peaked, his fearless antics led him to his death in April later that year as he was covering the Libyan civil war.

Friends and colleagues of Hetherington, Sebastian Junger and James Brabazon, decided to honor his life and work with the documentary Which Way is the Front Line From Here. The documentary was screened as part of the 8×8 Documentary Film Festival, a series of week-long documentary film festivals that run back to back across five university campuses across Ireland and presents works which deal with important social, political and human rights issues.

James Brabazon, producer of the film, had also worked with Hetherington in Liberia, where they covered the Liberian Civil War, a collaboration that also resulted in the film Liberia: an Uncivil War (2004) a film he co-directed and on which Tim was the cinematographer. He was present at its screening at NUIG and took the time to talk about the film, Tim Hetherington and the difficulty and dangers of working as a front line photojournalist.

“The original idea for making a film on Tim came from Sebastian [Junger],” he said. “A lot of people who were with Tim when he was actually killed had gone to New York for his memorial service. He wanted to understand what had happened, both as a friend and as a journalist. He started speaking to the people that came over and was interviewing them informally but also on camera. It became clear that there was a story to be told – as well as a story of Tim, it was a story of what had happened.” HBO backed the project, after what Brabazon defined as the ‘shortest commissioning meeting in history’.

Although there are elements of investigation into what led him to his death, Which Way is the Front Line From Here is more an intimate portrayal of Hetherington’s own personality and a journey of discovery into his motivations for pushing himself to the limit in portraying such scenes of tragedy and violence. “Tim’s work in conflict was very preoccupied with the study of young men and violence,” explained Brabazon. “The things he was battling with in exploring Libya were very similar to the things he was dealing with in Liberia. He wanted to understand how young men in conflict see themselves and what it is that informs such perceptions in conflict. Tim was fascinated by that feedback. But being in war is like being in a vortex. Tim was a young man too. He too ended up being sucked by that same gravitational pull that sucked those young men into cycles of violence. That is the reason why he went to Libya. There was no reason for him to be there, yet the vortex of violence is so irresistible.”

The film also deals extensively with the dangers of reporting from a zone of violent conflict and the incredible risks that reporters take. For instance, in his dedication to the search of a perfect, true and genuine viewpoint on war, Hetherington added danger to his work by employing certain unorthodox methods. “When he was shooting with me in Liberia, he was using a Rollerflex, which is a camera with a technology that hasn’t changed since the thirties. At that time he was the only person taking pictures like that in conflict. It’s a slow process with its rolls of paperback film. And when you take a picture like that it means that every picture has to count. You can’t spray and pray like with a DSLR. Shooting like that slows you down, but it also slows down the way you look at the world and reveals another level to the conflict. You see something beyond the surface, which is what makes Tim’s work stand out.”

“Tim is really present in his work. In Diary (2010), he puts himself in his work for the first time. You can see the way he interacts with people. He is a six foot, white guy walking around Africa. What you see in this work is a sort of consideration but you also see something of him. His understanding and his passion, which also really comes through in his photography. Looking at his photographs is like looking at compressed solid. It’s all there.”

Brabazon also looked at the ethical and moral problems, which are part of the work of a frontline reporter. “The idea of being a war reporter and being objective or neutral is a lie,” he explained. “It’s impossible. If you work on the frontline especially, there will come a time when you will have to exercise your natural right to self-defence.  The point at which you practice that right is the point when you are no longer an observer and you become an active participant. The trick here is to realise that immediately and get over it. What you have to ask yourself is whether or not what you are doing is credible, and that research of authenticity is what drives you and what also drove Tim.”

A photojournalist like Brabazon or Hetherington also has to deal with the inevitable struggle that comes from leading two separate lives. While one life is led in the wealthier and more privileged side of the world, another one is led in constant danger on underprivileged and poverty ridden grounds. This, as Brabazon described, is not a very easy thing to do. “Sometimes, after I come back home from a trip, I find myself walking through a supermarket absolutely bored by the tyranny of choice. Actually, it once came to me that what the rebels in Liberia were fighting for was the opportunity to be born in a supermarket. There is no great ideology in it. So the fact that you will be able to come back home is a privilege and if you can bring yourself to seeing it that way,  then that is a good way of getting through your toughest moments on the frontline.”

Tim Hetherington’s death indeed came as a blow to global photojournalism, and it was a big loss to the art world as well. Junger and Brabazon were directly affected in diametrically different ways. While his friend’s death led Junger to his decision of never working on the frontline again, Brabazon decided that it would have felt like a betrayal to have done so. With his enormous experience of reporting from poor and war zones, which can be sensed through the intensity of his personality and the determination in his eyes, Brabazon looks prepared to continue his work in Syria, which he has been exploring for quite some time.

Yet, there was a particular thought which he shared with the audience which was particularly disturbing. “If young men didn’t find something meaningful and enjoyable about war, there wouldn’t be war. Therefore, if you are interested in stopping or even limiting war, you have to grapple with this essential truth.”

 

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Venice Film Festival – The Lux Prize

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Matt Micucci concludes his reports from the Venice Film Festival with a look at The Lux Prize films.
From mid-October to December, during the Lux Film Days, the Lux Prize films  travel all over Europe this autumn: Valeria Golino’s Miele,  Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant.

 

The Lux Prize is a prize awarded by the European Parliament to a film produced or co-produced in Europe. As its name suggests, it aims to ‘illuminate’ the public debate on European integration and promote the image of the European Union through the European language of cinema. It was set up in 2007 and its previous winners include the Belgian Lorna’s Silence by the Dardenne Brothers and last year’s Italian Shun Li and the Poet by Andrea Segre. After a careful selection process, three finalist films are chosen to be screened in front of members of the European Parliament who pick the winner. The winning film does not get money, but assistance in the form of subtitling in all the languages of the European Union as well as other help regarding its distribution and exhibition.

 

Despite its noble aim and cause, there has been some opposition to the existence of this prize and members of the European parliament such as Silvia Costa, from Italy, and the current chair of the EU Committee on Culture and Education Doris Pack, from Germany, have had to fight hard to ensure its preservation. Yet, at least for now, the Lux Prize lives on.The screenings of the three finalist films from this edition of the Lux Prize took place in Venice during the final days of the Film Festival. They come from Italy, the UK and Belgium. They are Valeria Golino’s Honey, Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant and Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown. All three directors took time to have a chat about their films in front of the boys and girls of the 28 Times Cinema programme, a programme which aims to give the opportunity of a lifetime in bringing a young cinephile from each country of the European Union to the Venice Film Festival. The meeting took place at the Villa Degli Autori, the official ‘home ground’ of the Venice Days section of the Venetian festival.
 
HONEY
 
Valeria Golino is one of the most renowned Italian actresses of recent times. Known to a worldwide audience for her roles in Rain Man, the Hot Shots! films and Leaving Las Vegas she has won numerous awards for her performances including a Coppa Volpi for Best Actress in 1986 with A Tale of Love.

Given her long and illustrious career, it might only have been a matter of time before she would have chosen to step behind the camera. However, instead of easing herself comfortably in her newfound role as a filmmaker, she bravely decided to take on an issue as controversial and as current as assisted suicide in her directorial debut. In Honey, she does this through the story of a young girl, Irene, played wonderfully by Jasmine Trinca, who has decided to dedicate her life to assisting the suicide of terminally ill people.

“It’s a movie about a type of death that has to be discussed,” Golino said. “That is also why I didn’t want to take an ideological position. The moment when someone decides to take his or her own life is the most drastic and painful decision that anyone could possibly have. In some countries, these people end up being marginalised or made to feel ashamed of themselves simply because it is against the law.”

Yet, despite her passion for the subject and her wish to raise awareness of it with her film, Golino also tastefully underplays strict judgement and avoids taking sides. By doing so, Honey may still be thematically uncomfortable and intense – indeed too intense for some – but never patronizing. “I didn’t want to force or trick the audience into being moved. It would have been obscene. During the whole production, I was constantly asking myself how far I could go. That is why, for instance, I do not make use of a musical score. I wanted to make a film without moral judgement.”

Perhaps the most surprising fact about this film is that it’s from Italy, a notoriously conservative country particularly in its dealing with the theme of euthanasia. Yet, Golino maintained that, while it was difficult to raise funds for the making of Honey, it didn’t take much time. The reason for that was not only the fact that the film was partially funded by producer and Golino’s partner Riccardo Scamarcio, but also because of their tactics to ask for small sums to more financiers instead of bigger contributions from fewer people. The smaller budget, she insists, allowed her to make this film with more freedom.

“I think films that talk about these issues should be made with less money, so that you can be freer to like or dislike what goes on in them. In the film, it is my own doubts and my own ethical concerns that come into play. Also, it was my first feature. The idea of getting a lot of money for it would have added anxiety and responsibility. Therefore, making the film with less money was better.”

While Honey, is a film that will inevitably morally split audiences in half, it is also a touching and intense character study. Though it may seem harsh and crude on the outside, it has an underlying sweetness in its core, particularly with the relationship, which develops between Irene and an older man who tricks her into giving him the substance to kill himself despite the fact that he is not sick. Through him, she finally experiences the relief of being able to talk about her second life where she encounters tragedy on a daily basis, which she is forced for numerous reasons to keep secret. Honey is an impressively brave film as well as a successful and more than convincing cinematic transition for Valeria Golino from actress to filmmaker.

 

THE SELFISH GIANT

Clio Barnard’s film The Selfish Giant is the story of the friendship between two teenage boys who are excluded from school and get mixed up in the dangerous world of metal scrappage. The film is based loosely on the famous Oscar Wilde story and Barnard said that in the first adaptation, the two boys actually meet a giant. The director said “I wanted to make a deceptively simple story, which is actually very difficult to do because once you start unpicking it, it becomes more complex.”

Yet, despite the fairy-tale connections, this is quote a harrowing and powerful drama, which seems a direct descendant of classics like Ken Loach’s Kes, with the same use of gritty realism, and recalls the rebellious feel of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. “One of my starting points for making [The Selfish Giant] was watching films with my own children. I wanted them to see other films from multiplex ones. I showed them Kes, The Bicycle Thieves, The Kid With a Bike.

The Selfish Giant is an intense and effective portrayal of the reality of the British poorer class as well as a protest on the passivity of the British educational system. Its story is deeply rooted in the harshness of real life and, as Barnard said, her two leading characters were based on two real boys she met while she was making her previous feature The Harbour. “I got to know this boy called Mattie and spent a lot of time with him and his friend. They worked for an illegal moneylender and a scrap man and I was very interested in the moral ambiguity of the character. I asked myself whether he was giving them opportunity or exploiting them.”

At the heart of the film, however, also lies a profoundly touching friendship between the two boys, Arbor and Swifty. This friendship is made even more moving by the honest performances of the two young leads who, despite their age and inexperience, bring a genuineness to the film that adds to its emotional depth. “Neither of them had acted before and they both had big personalities. The big kid, Swifty [Shaun Thomas], is very open so I could talk to him about what the character was feeling. Conner [Chapman] on the other hand is very quiet. He finds it hard to make eye contact so I’d give him notes and I never knew whether he was responding to them until I watched his performance and realised he was.”

Despite it dealing with a delicate subject, Film Four instantly green-lit Barnard’s film after watching her previous work The Harbour, which had been funded by an arts organisation. Barnard repaid them by delivering a film that feels like a powerful experience. Yet, regardless of the maturity and intensity of the film, Barnard maintains that a younger audience as well as an older one could see The Selfish Giant. “I wanted children to be able to engage with it,” she said. “Some people may choose not to show it to their children, but I think children have a huge capacity to see films that are regarded as difficult and intense.”

 

THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN

With the values of film production in Belgium always on the rise, money being invested in the industry, people taking risks, private finding and TV station involvement, it seems like Belgium in the last few years has entered its very own golden age. And Felix van Groeningen is certainly one of its most impressive directors. Having already garnered publicity and praise for his previous films With Friends Like These and The Misfortunates, with The Broken Circle Breakdown he seems all set to leave an even greater mark on cinema.

With its mixture of love story, domestic drama, political meditations and bluegrass music this film is as sweet as it is a painfully disturbing portrait of family tragedy. It is the story of Didier and Elise, who fall in love, play in a bluegrass band and have a wonderful little daughter. However, their idyllic and peaceful like is placed under serious threat when their daughter is diagnosed with cancer. “70 per cent of the couples that go through something like that will separate. That’s because you can share happiness and joy but you cannot share grief,” said Van Groeningen.

Van Groeningen’s film was based on a John Heldenberg’s theatre play. Heldenberg himself plays the part of Didier. While it wasn’t something he had lived through, he wrote the play after he was inspired by the fact that he discovered bluegrass and became outraged about George W. Bush stopping the stem cells funding at around the same time. The irony of this juxtaposition really comes through in the film. “[Heldenberg] is very atheist, but the music is very religious.”

Another interesting aspect of the film is Didier’s relationship with America. At first, he falls in love with it and then, after he experiences his domestic tragedy, he becomes disenchanted with it. “America is represented more as a dream and not necessarily as it is in real life. When things are good, he keeps idealising it, but through this personal tragedy he uses it to make him angry. On the other hand, he does say some things that are true.”

The play, he explained, was more like a powerful monologue interrupted by performances of bluegrass songs. In the film, the narrative is a little more complex and carefully constructed. Despite the fact that it messes with time and setting, it flows powerfully and flawlessly. “One of the things that attracted me the most in the theatre play was this hour long rant where [Heldenberg] shouts in anger. In the movie, I obviously couldn’t do that, except in the end.”

Van Groeningen also referred to the loss of his father as a personal connection, which ultimately led him to make the film. “I realised that life all of a sudden seemed very fragile.” This heartfelt personal connection to his story shows in the film and is perhaps The Broken Circle Breakdown’s key to its genuine intimacy.

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Venice Diary – Day 8

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The 70th Venice Film Festival (28th August – 7th September 2013)

Matt Micucci reports from the eighth day of the Venice Film Festival as it prepares for the Lux Prize.

Today will be the busiest day of my Venice Film Festival stay because it is the day of the Lux Prize. The Lux Prize is a prize set up by the European parliament to facilitate the distribution of European films. The winning film does not get money but it is subtitled in all the 28 languages of the country of the European Union. I’m going to break a little unwritten rule that I have had so far in writing these diary entries in the present tense by saying that after a whole day of politicians talking to us in panel sessions and conferences talking about it, I still had to go on Wikipedia to check out a straight forward definition for it! Does that say something or what?

But first, we have an earlier panel session with the filmmakers, this time two. One is Juno Mak, director of Rigor Mortis and the other one is Sean Gullette, director of Traitors that unfortunately, given the quality of the films at this Venice film festival has been the worst film I have seen yet here in Venice, although it’s still good enough. However, Gullette does tell us that he has set up the 212 Society, a US funded scheme to finance cultural projects in Morocco; his wife is from there and they moved there after she decided to help save an art house cinema in Tangier that was being taken down. As a result the cinema was turned into a proper film centre which is called The Cinematheque de Tanger and Darna.

After the interesting talk comes the time to pay tribute to the people who apparently made it possible for us ‘28 Times Cinema’ people to come to Venice, represented by members of the European Parliament Doris Pack and Lella Costa, who highlight the importance of programmes like ’28 Times Cinema’ and the Lux Prize in spreading and promoting European culture. They also talk about how difficult it is for them to finance these programmes and sell them to the parliament as necessary. It seems unnatural to me that culture be given such little importance, yet I do believe that what they’re saying is true.

After a photo shoot with the representatives, we are all invited to a press conference to further discuss the debate along with the three directors of the three films that were picked as finalists of the Lux Prize – Cleo Barnard from the UK, Valeria Golino from Italy and Felix van Groeningen from Belgium. The press conference starts as a political campaign; the type where all political representatives brag about the wonderful work they have been doing and how great they are. What followed was both hilarious and bizarre.

Cleo Barnard is invited on the stage to talk briefly about her film, and Doris Pack gives practically screams at her that the UK are the ones that absolutely do not support the Lux Prize initiative as if it was her fault. Once the beautiful Valeria Golino takes to the stage, excitement takes over the older members of the audience and they get excited to the point that everyone seems to want to contribute to the debate. A man picks up a microphone and starts giving out about Google stepping on the rights of the filmmakers and this generates an applause which literally brings him to the point of tears, overcome with emotions. An old man from behind me, representing some group which supports the rights of authors, gets up and uninvited takes to the stage to show his support in the fight to protect artistic rights against Google – all the while looking at Golino to try as if trying to impress them.

The commotion is so high in the room that no one has noticed that Felix van Groeningen too has reached the stage. With the peaceful air of a rascal, he adds to the room’s incontrollable furore by stating that perhaps it is fair that more money should go to agriculture. The temperature rises, the house shakes, people take sides and vociferate wildly. An Italian man with a fervent Tuscan accent, perhaps Roberto Benigni’s father, goes off on an almost stand-up comedy rant which causes the translator, who up to now had been successful in keeping up with the room’s Italian language debates, to laugh hysterically and the non-Italian speaking members of the audience to also laugh in a confused yet transfixed state. The press conference outruns the pre-planned length of an hour to almost two hours, and people walk out of the room sweaty and feverish – it’s almost as if we had just attended a boxing match.

Now is the time for us to actually watch the films. However, the three Lux prize finalist movies will not be screened at the Mostra section, but on the other side of the island. It’s a long and hard walk, and when we finally make it to the venue, a small cinema, Golino and her producer/boyfriend Riccardo Scamarcio introduce their film Honey. Honey is a great daring film about a girl whose job is assisting the terminally ill in their choice to commit suicide. The main character of Irene, portrayed wonderfully by Jasmine Trinca. Euthanasia is a heavy subject and for a film like this to have been produced in the traditionally Catholic and widely conservative country of Italy is impressive in itself. The film as a whole is very good and represents a good transition between the Valeria Golino actress of Rain Man and the Hot Shots film to Valeria Golino the filmmaker.

All the while, however, I wonder how the Christian Democrat Doris Pack who is in attendance will react to the way in which the film handles the heavy theme of euthanasia. When the film is over and we get a quick break, I notice that she is the last to get up off her seat and she has a very angry look on her face. So, not good.

The second film is by Felix van Groeningen, The Broken Circle Breakdown. It is another tragedy. A couple whose idyllic family life and great bluegrass band career threaten to come to an end when their child is diagnosed with cancer. It’s charming and harrowing at once. In retrospective, of all three it is the biggest crowd pleaser. The music is good, the drama is great and the romance too is delightful, which makes the tragic circumstances all the more upsetting. The main theme which may have appealed to the handpicked European commission who selected the final three films may have been the theme of America. When we are first introduced to the main character of Didier, he is in love with the American culture but by the end, he loathes it and uses it to express his disenchantment vivaciously. This, however, I see as a more general disenchantment with his own life and dreams rather than an expression of idealism to satisfy some background political agenda. After all, a lot of the film reminded me of the style of Sam Peckinpah!

The third film, The Selfish Giant by Cleo Barnard ends up being my personal favourite. She honestly and almost apologetically introduces it as ‘another tragedy’. Inspired by the Oscar Wilde short story, it is the tale of two teenage boys from Bradford who get involved in the dangerous world of metal scraps. It is extremely intense all throughout with its use of a powerful visual style that reminds one of Ken Loach’s. It also carries important messages about adolescence in less privileged parts of Britain and the dangers of a passive educational system. Yet, I look around and some of the audience is lost on the strong Bradford accent, especially given the fact that the film is only subtitled in Italian.

At the end of this more than four-hour film viewing session, we are destroyed and some are even depressed. These three films are simply not meant to be seen back to back, one after the other with not enough time to let one sink in before the start of the next one. They are tragedies – intense, powerful and even disturbing, thus not the easiest triple bill to sit through. However, we are also all in agreement in saying that they are great – in fact, they may just be the best three films we have seen since we have arrived in Venice.

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Venice Film Festival – Day 7

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Rigor Mortis

The 70th Venice Film Festival (28th August – 7th September 2013)

Matt Micucci reports from the seventh day of the Venice Film Festival and encounters a strange man wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt, a John Waters moustache with an interest in twerking.

This morning’s panel session is with two journalists Grazyna Torbicka and Luciana Castellina. The former is a Polish film journalist who works on TV with a show on cinema, which apparently is a rare thing. The latter is a renowned film critic who insists that film criticism is more pure than film journalism, which often focuses on the gossip that surrounds the glamorous world of the flicks (can it be called that in the digital era anymore?). I expected this panel to have been helpful and interesting given my ambitions of becoming a professional journalist, but they offer no help or advice. When I ask them what my next step in becoming a ‘professional journalist’ should be, they literally look like they have no idea what to say.

Moving on, I have the third and final class of my film criticism workshop, which I have never really talked about because it would be pointless to do so. But the man who taught me, a renowned Serbian film critic by the name of Nenad Dukic took me by surprise when I told him I was from Galway and he knew everything about the Galway Film Fleadh. He called it a ‘very nice little festival’, so thumbs up guys!

The first screening I attend is a film by Juno Mak, called Rigor Mortis. It is a post-modern horror film with a Takashi Miike feel, which pays tribute to the older Japanese vampire genre films of the eighties. Juno Mak is introduced as a pop star whose records top the charts all over Asia. For some reason I instantly thought of the karaoke scenes in Only God Forgives, and that brought me down. However, the film completely surprised me with its mysterious and disturbing enigmatic nature and reflections of the theme of loneliness and fears of being forgotten.

Set in a Hong Kong tenement, the lead character is a washed-up former film star who has recently lost his wife and child. Little does he know that strange and horrible things take place in the tenement, involving ancient spells, vampires and zombies. Its special effects are incredibly creative and I am not at all surprised when, after the screening, he tells us that it took him six weeks to shoot but had a post-production which lasted one year.

Before the next screening, as usual I stop in the press room and the volume on the TVs are turned way up for the press conference of an Italian film called L’Intruso. At some stage, a strange man wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt, a John Waters moustache and a cheesy French accent stands up and asks the filmmakers and cast whether they made use of ‘twerking’ in their film. No one knows what twerking is, including the translator who asks for a reference. The man then refers to Miley Cyrus shaking her ass on MTV and the press room erupts into laughter. The strange man, however, persists in spite of a man angrily telling him to ask a serious question. He insists that most films make use of twerking. This goes on for quite some time and everyone has a good laugh.

Today is the day, however, of the press screening for Wajda’s new film Walesa. It is based on the life of Nobel prize winner Lech Walesa who funded the first Independent trade union in the Soviet bloc. Despite the fact that I am doubtful I will get in, as Wajda will be receiving an honorary award tomorrow and there is much talk of his new film being somewhat controversial, I end up making the ten o’clock screening and happily watch another solid film by the master filmmaker.

With Walesa, once again, Wajda casts new light on a certain event in Polish history. To do so, he goes back to what I would consider his most recognisable style and structure, which is also the one he used in Man of Marble, with use of archive footage, mixture of colour and black and white stock, parallel storylines set in different times. Walesa may lack a certain passion, but it looks magnificent and unravels at an exciting pace. I must admit that I was not familiar with Walesa and his importance in history, so the film didn’t have the controversial feel, although it had the historical appeal. Walesa is essentially portrayed as an ordinary man who rose to gain credibility among the working class and led them to a non-violent revolt. He is also shown as quite unlearned and ignorant but all at once smart and good-natured. This film also has a good sense of humour and while perhaps it may not rank among the filmmaker’s best, it is certainly quite an impressive film to be making at his age and with a budget of just 3.5 million.

After the screening Grazyna Torbicka, the Polish journalist from this morning’s panel session, asks me what I thought of the movie and whether I knew anything about Walesa and whether I could follow the storyline. We have a chat about it and in the end she asks me whether I would recommend the film to anyone, and I tell her that I would recommend Wajda to anyone anytime.

Read Matt’s Venice Diary here

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