Sunday, December 22, 2013

My Top Ten Films of 2013

So it was inevitable that I was going to publish a list like this, so without further ado here is my ten favourite films, in order, of 2013:

Snubbed by Hollywood for apparently being too gay this touching and hilarious Liberace biopic premiered on HBO therefore denying both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon for Oscar nominations.  It got a cinema release here in the UK and I loved it.

An obvious choice that will be in everyone’s end of year lists, this sci-fi thriller was a cinematic phenomenon reminding us all what we should expect from the big screen.  To all those people who pirated the film online, as they couldn’t be bothered to pay to see it: you missed something special.

An understated documentary that gave an insight into the terrible AIDS virus of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.  A heartbreaking and brilliant film about the power of people in the face of government prejudice – it was released in a year where LGBT rights are expanding at an amazing rate in the West, but there is still so much work to do.  A humanizing and important film.

Film Review: The Act Of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer) 2013

The Act Of Killing

If you like watching uncomfortable and ethically ambiguous films then the new film from Joshua Oppenheimer is the godfather of worrying documentaries.  The entire film is a meditation on suffering and humiliation told in such a radical form that the audience becomes complicit in the horrors that are presented.  The filmmakers have contacted thugs and gangsters that undertook the extermination of ‘communists’ in the ‘60s in Indonesia and asked them to tell their story by making a film of their own; thereby creating the cruelest and most uncomfortable meta-documentary/making-of films that I have ever seen.

The film does not spend long giving context to the Indonesian killings that occurred in 1965-66, so with that in mind I feel that I can make a few comments on the content of the film without really knowing anything about that era.  Oppenheimer does not try to educate the audience about that time, but instead uses those events as a catalyst to explore Indonesian politics and culture today.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mark Kermode: Hatchet Job - Book Tour review

It might seem a little 'meta' to review a live book tour about a book that critiques the process of film criticism, but I would feel bad If I were not  to legitimise the enjoyment I had of the evening by committing a few words to (digital) paper.

For those who do not know Mark Kermode, he is the recently promoted chief film critic of The Observer, as well as being the important half (sorry Simon!) of the Kermode & Mayo Radio 5 Film Review Show.

I love Mr. Kermode for many reasons:
  1. He lives in Brockenhurst (where I grew up)
  2. He has an unashamed love for films that are not aimed at his demographic (Twilight, to pick an obvious example...but there are plenty others)
  3. He loves horror
  4. He's in a skiffle band and he loves Larmer Tree Festival
I could go on but won't.   He is also very good at discussing films.

I must admit at this point that I haven't actually read his latest book yet (I think Santa might deliver it...)  But I did read It's Only A Movie, a cinematic autobiography, and The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex, an analysis of the economic and semiotic problems with blockbusters and digital cinemas.  Both were very funny, but also wonderfully celebratory of the magic of cinema - allowing the same passionate geekism towards Werner Herzog instead of Zak Snyder, Chris Nolan and other comic book films that have captured modern geek culture.

Mark spent the evening reminiscing about pithy bad reviews ("Hatchet Jobs") from critics past, as well as expanding on the central idea revolving about the powerful viral appeal of negativity as opposed to thoughtful reflection on good cinema.  He managed to walk the line between cinematic stand-up and cultural theorist, without committing to either position.  It was easy to see why he has such a strong following - he makes you feel like he is chatting to you one-to-one, and he loves a good in-joke.

He also had some excellent answers in the Q&A.  I asked him about how to gain more invites to press screenings and he immediately launched into an interesting reflection on how times have changed for film critics...  And when he finished he asked me if it had been helpful.  Lovely bloke.

His book Hatchet Job is available now and would make a very good christmas present

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Rise of Ballet in Popular Culture

Over the last couple of years there has been a real interest in ballet, especially now that the Bolshoi season is shown in full at PictureHouse Theatres as well as at Odeons.

Love Tomorrow (Christopher Payne)

For years the cinema has been attacked as the cultural younger brother of Opera, Theatre and Ballet – a mass culture format to entertain the masses that can’t afford the more expensive high arts.  Yet every now and then a film arrives that celebrates high art within the popular medium – so to celebrate the arrival of Love Tomorrow on DVD (available here), here are some of the finer examples:

Film Review: Saving Mr Banks (John Lee Hancock) 2013

Every now and then a film is released that has such an overt conflict of interest that it can make you cringe.  Anyone who has seen Happy Gilmore will recognize that product placement can ruin a film, even if it is a comedy.  However the new film from Disney has just the right level of self-deprecation and awareness to give different viewers different enjoyments.
The story follows P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) deciding whether to sell the rights to Mary Poppins to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks).  Disney has invited her to Hollywood so that she can be involved in the scriptwriting process, but she is cynical from the start and is horrified that they have included music and animation into her stoic and serious character stories. 
The film is intercut with scenes from Travers’ childhood where she grew up in Australia.  Her father was a banker with an alcohol problem but a wonderful imagination, who slowly begins to jeopardize his career with his drunken flamboyance.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Film Review: Big Bad Wolves (Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado) 2013

Big Bad Wolves

The second film from Israeli writer-director duo Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado is a brutal, yet undeniably funny, horror-thriller and is looking to make an impact in cinemas this week (6th December 2013).  It has already caught the attention of Quentin Tarantino who described it as “the best film of the year”.

The film begins with a thuggish but ultimately inept detective beating a tied-up suspect in a multiple child murder case in the face repeatedly with a phone book.  The suspect is a weedy religious studies teacher who is accused of kidnapping girls and removing their heads.

Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, this brutal (yet ludicrous) interrogation is recorded by a terrified child with a mobile phone who puts the footage online for the country to see.  Due to this embarrassment, the police chief is forced to release the suspect and suspend the detective.  The detective, now working outside of the law, manages to serendipitously team up with a vengeful parent of one of the previous victims who has bought a house (with a basement) in the middle of nowhere so that he can take the law into his own hands…

A Crispy Sharp Competition! WHEN THE DRAGON SWALLOWED THE SUN DVD Giveaway

Earlier in the year I wrote a review of When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun, a documentary highlighting the continuing injustices surrounding the relationship between Tibet and China.  The film looks beautiful and has a great soundtrack featuring Thom Yorke, Philip Glass and Damien Rice.

We have two copies of the DVD to give away (in association with AR-PR) before its official release date of the 9th December.

For a chance to win simply follow Crispy Sharp on Twitter and tweet a message with #CrispySharpCompetition and #Dragon and we will announce a winner at 20:00 on December 8th.

The DVD is available now at Amazon

The winner will be announced on Sunday the 8th of December at 20:00 and will be decided by random.
Winners will be sent an email after the announcements

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Crispy Sharp Competition! LOVE TOMORROW DVD Giveaway

To celebrate the release of the new romantic film from writer/director Chistopher Payne, Crispy Sharp (in collaboration with AR-PR) has 2 copies of the DVD to give away.

"Set in present day London, LOVE TOMORROW is the story of an ex-ballet dancer whose life is turned upside down after receiving devastating news about her fiancé, Dominic.  Wandering the underground in a torment of pain and confusion, a chance encounter with a charismatic Cuban dancer, Oriel offers a temporary distraction. Oriel overlooks her engagement ring and suggests she spends some time with him.

Why she follows this insistent stranger is unclear, and why he tolerates her reserve, mood swings and outright hostility is also unclear. But as the night lengthens and turns into day, the frustrations, secrets and wounds of both their lives begin to emerge, and a fragile friendship promises to turn into something more profound."

All you need to do is Like our page on Facebook and reply to one of the messages about this film with "Crispy Sharp Competition" - two winners will be announced on Wednesday 3rd of December.

Love Tomorrow – is available to pre-order on Amazon now

The winner will be announced on Wednesday the 3rd of December at 22:00 and will be decided by random.  Information will be sent via Facebook inbox after the announcements

Friday, November 15, 2013

Film Review: Utopia (John Pilger) 2013


If there is one political documentary filmmaker that has remained unambiguously ideologically consistent over their career in the (quasi)mainstream then it is John Pilger.  He has fervently been representing and documenting the plight of the oppressed and dispossessed for nearly 4 decades, never sensationalising his subjects but instead listening to them and contextualising their issues and turmoil.

His latest documentary Utopia sees him return to his home country of Australia in order to highlight the persistent and shocking prejudice that is aimed at the Aboriginal communities.  He last focussed on this subject in his film Welcome To Australia (available online it its entirety here) that highlighted the tragic inequality between the native people of the country and their exclusion from the pomp and fanfare of the upcoming Sydney Olympic games.  This film returns to the issue, this time stressing the lack of access to healthcare and employment for the people, the appalling police brutality that they suffer and the psychological damage that is done due to the historical revisionism of the white majority population.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Film Review: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón) 2013


When rumours started flying that Sandra Bullock was starring in a sci-fi film that was gearing up to be one of the event films of 2013, it seemed logical to assume that it was going to be a big-budget adventure film with plenty of character clichés and genre conventions.  This is not an insult against Bullock, it’s just that she has always suited mainstream popcorn fodder and romantic comedies.  However, the rumours turn out to be true – this is the performance of a lifetime in a film that could dominate critical and popular Top-Ten Sci-Fi lists for years to come…

Friday, November 8, 2013

Film Review: Noah (Patrick Cederberg, Walter Woodman) 2013 [Short]

Short films, as opposed to feature-length cinema, are almost always ‘high-concept’, i.e. possible to sum up as an idea in a single sentence.  For example, what would it be like to wake up over and over again on the same day (Groundhog Day)? Or what if machines had enslaved mankind without us knowing (The Matrix)?  Due to their length and budgets, short films usually use a high-concept idea and explore it in a fun and simple way.
Noah uses a high-concept style to tell a story:  How would a relationship breakdown look from the point-of-view of a computer user?


The film is told entirely through screenshots of Apple software, Facebook, Skype and Chat Roulette and explores the relationships people have with these products, as they maintain the relationships they have with real people… 
Noah is idly browsing porn sites and Wikipedia as he lazily video-calls his girlfriend Amy, who is concerned about their relationship changing as they leave for college.  When the call is interrupted he freaks out and thinks that she is breaking up with him, so he logs into her Facebook account in order to check her messages and interactions with other guys.  It then shows the aftermath of his paranoia
If you can accept that the cinematography of the film is simply watching someone browse Facebook, then the narrative and the message of the film is pure zeitgeist, in a way that no other film I have ever seen has captured a moment in time so beautifully (mid-2012; chat roulette has already disappeared from the cultural conversation).  The film manages to be distanced and voyeuristic and yet intimate, funny and awkward, but not judgmental.  Ultimately this captures how young people interact online more than any teen blockbuster can get close to.


It is the perfect video to go viral online and I hope it gets seen by as many people as possible whilst it still feels fresh, although I also think that it will serve as a snapshot (snapchat?) into online reality for future virtual historians.

Noah is showing at the Bath Film Festival on December 1st 2013

Friday, November 1, 2013

Film Review: How To Survive A Plague (David France) 2013

“In absence of adequate healthcare, we have learned to be our own clinicians, researchers, lobbyists, drug smugglers, pharmacists… We have our own libraries, newspapers, drug stores and laboratories…”

How To Survive A Plague

The ongoing argument about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in America seems to mainly focus on one crucial premise:  Should the wider population be forced to accommodate the healthcare costs of a minority?  Proponents of the law claim that by spreading the cost of coverage around then the overall economic benefits from having a healthy population will outweigh the costs.  Critics of the law claim that it is overreaching (to the point of tyrannical) and that individuals should look after themselves.  This split is mainly drawn down political lines, with Republicans on one side (against) and Democrats on the other (for).  The question of coverage is not necessarily focused on specific aliments and conditions.

Imagine how divisive the argument gets then when (so called) morality is included in the equation.  In the AIDS epidemic of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, one group of people (the mostly gay minority) insisted that more action was taken to prevent a specific disease from spreading; and the other group of people, mostly religious conservatives, wanted to prevent the disease by eradicating ‘sinful’ behaviour.  The argument is essentially the same though; the right-wingers want to combat a disease by enforcing responsibility on the individual, whereas the left-wingers want to encourage collective action to help a disadvantaged minority.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Film Review: Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass) 2013

Captain Philips

It is sometimes forgotten that Tom Hanks spent the 1980s doing relentless comedy films (such as The Money Pit, Turner & Hooch, The ‘Burbs and Big – all of which are brilliant in their own way.)  Then in 1990 he took a more serious role in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Bonfire Of The Vanities, where he played a Wall Street yuppie that has a public breakdown after keeping the secret of his mistress knocking down a teenager with his car.  From this point on in his career (albeit with some exceptions) Hanks has seemed to gravitate towards characters that are alone amongst a crowd of unsympathetic or misunderstanding onlookers. 

Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Cast Away, The Terminal, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan and arguably even Toy Story all feature Hanks playing a protagonist who is symbolically (or literally) detached or stranded away from the rest of his peers – Captain Phillips is the latest installment of that trend…

Hanks plays the eponymous captain of a freight liner which is set to travel through the Somali Basin as it delivers commercial cargo and international aid to the east coast of Africa.   Intercut with the liner preparing to sail, we are introduced to a number of Somali pirates recruiting members to try and capture a ship for ransom.  After a number of attempts on the ship, they board and take Philips hostage for 10 million dollars.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Crispy Sharp Competition! Jane Bussman at the One World Media Festival

This year, the One World Media Festival is being closed by Jane Bussmann doing her one-woman-show Bono and Geldof are C**ts - a 'lighthearted look at foreign aid and who it really helps'.  Bussmann has worked on South Park, Smack The Pony and Brass Eye (all classics of course) and has just recently written the book The Worst Date Ever: or how it took a comedy writer to expose Africa's secret war...

The show has had a sell-out run in Sydney, much like her earlier Edinburgh show, and Crispy Sharp have got pairs of tickets to give away to the event.  All you have to do is follow us on Twitter and tweet a message with the hashtag #CrispySharpCompetition and you can be in on the chance to win two tickets on the 9th of November for the closing of the festival at the UCL, Gower Street, London.

We have been given three sets of tickets to be announced on Wednesday the 6th at 20:00...

For more information about the event then click here

The winner will be announced on Wednesday the 6th of November at 20:00 and will be decided by random.  Information will be sent via email after the announcements


The Iraq War on the big screen

Anti-war march September 2007
In hindsight, it has become conventional wisdom to some that American (and European) television news let the public down in the run up to the Iraq war.  Hours and hours of broadcasting allowing politicians to ‘sell’ the war to the public, not scrutinising the evidence given for the war robustly enough, and sensationalising and dramatising the build up culminating in the live broadcast of war as it began in March, 2003. 

It could also be argued that 30 years of increasingly serious/realistic war cinema had managed to prep audiences for the inevitable mediated war that was to come out of 24 hours news channels and social networking.  Once the war was in full effect though there began to be a cautious effort from Hollywood to represent the war differently as public opinion began to change – looking at the chronology of Iraq war films shows a serious shift that begins with Lions for Lambs (2007) and culminates with Buried (2010).

The first interesting point is the lack of films produced that focus on the war.  There are plenty of violent films that could symbolically service the fatigue of a nation at war, as well as a huge rise in superhero Good vs. Evil narratives – but there are few films that are explicitly set during the occupation.  I want to mention a handful of them to make a point about the role of cinema in reflecting the mood of a nation:  Lions For Lambs (2007), The Hurt Locker (2008), W. (2008), Fair Game (2010), Green Zone (2010) Buried (2010).

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Film Review: White House Down (Roland Emmerich) 2013

White House Down

I really want to believe that Roland Emmerich is a smart director.  In my mind, his films simultaneously give the mainstream audience what they want, whilst including enough layers to appease a populism-skeptic like me.  They may all have moments of saccharine family bonding, interspersed with (at first glance) the worst manifestation of American exceptionalism – yet upon closer inspection it is possible to see more nuanced representations of military strength, politics and American civic culture.

White House Down takes place during the morning after President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) has announced that all American troops are to be withdrawn from the ‘Middle East region’ and all military contractors removed.  This same morning, Martin Walker (James Woods) is retiring as the head of the presidential Secret Service team that John Cale (Channing Tatum), an Afghanistan veteran, is desperately trying to be recruited to.  Cale has a tumultuous relationship with his 11-year-old daughter, so after his secret service interview, and due to her obssession with politics, they go on a tour of the White House to try and bond.

During the tour, Emily disappears to use the bathroom at the same time that a group of terrorists set off a bomb and shoot all of the security guards, thereby systematically taking control of the White House and it’s control centre.  John uses his expert training to escape from becoming a hostage and goes to try and find his daughter, yet he quickly has to concentrate on protecting the president from the mercenaries.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The greatest ensemble casts of all time...?

The release of the new Wes Anderson trailer for The Budapest Grand Hotel shows that his contact book has grown exponentially since the humble beginnings of his career.  The ensemble cast for his latest film is absolutely huge, with lots of A-listers hungry to work with the hipster ironist.  Including:

  • Ralph Fiennes
  • Willem Dafoe
  • Edward Norton
  • Owen Wilson
  • Bill Murray
  • Jude Law
  • Saoirse Ronan
  • Tilda Swinton
  • Jeff Goldblum
  • Adrien Brody
  • Jason Schwartzman
  • Harvey Kietel
It got me thinking about other great ensemble pieces...

Monday, October 14, 2013

Film Review: The Fifth Estate (Bill Condon) 2013

The Fifth Estate
Wikileaks is an online organization that allows whistleblowers a virtual space to publish unedited, leaked documents that are deemed politically important and in the interest of individuals, as opposed to institutions.  This seems to me like a noble and democratic aim, if not slightly vague on the nuances of handling sensitive information.  The problem with making a decent film about an organization like this is that by its very construct, cinema has to edit, exaggerate and editorialize information in order to gain an audience – thus doing everything that goes against the principles of the focus of the film.  It is only possible to give a version of events, instead of the definitive account of an event – a line that is spoken towards the end of the film by Julian Assange, the founder of the website.  Here is my version, of the version of events contained within the film:

The narrative begins with Daniel Burg (Daniel Brühl) refreshing his web browser on the eve of The Guardian, The New York Times and Die Spiegel simultaneously publishing thousands of leaked war logs recounting the Afghanistan war.  The story then jumps back two years to a time when Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) first meets Daniel in Berlin as he is trying to get information about his web vision to any audience who will listen.  The two get together and publish their first big story, information about tax fraud committed by a Swiss bank.  As they begin to get more and more leaks published, a tension grows between them about whether it is ethical to edit the information before release, in order to protect people, or whether any redactions declare inherent bias.  The story then dramatically builds to the moment where we began on the eve of the war logs release and the immediate geopolitical aftermath.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

One World Media Festival - (8th & 9th Nov)

The brand new One World Media Festival launches this morning and will take place on the 8th & 9th of November.  The festival is in association with the successful Open City Docs Festival and will host two days of guest speakers and comedians looking at human rights, international development and aid.  There will also be keynote speeches, industry panels and film screenings including:
Wadjda – the first ever feature film by a Saudi Arabian woman (Haifa al-Mansour), which has been submitted to the Oscars this year.
TV Slum – a 2003 film created by Nairobi slum teenagers in and around the Kenyan capital.
Mare Chiuso (Closed Sea) a 2012 film about Libyan refugees trying to get to Italy filmed on their mobile phones by the travellers in the boat.
Leave to Remain a film made with asylum seekers in East London about the immigration system.
The event takes place at University College London and is free as long as tickets are booked online in advance.  They are available here from today (Thursday 10th October)
For more on the Open City Docs Festival check here

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Film Review: How I Live Now (Kevin MacDonald) 2013

How I Live Now
It is a growing concern amongst certain film critics that any film that has a target audience other than 15-35 year old, heterosexual, middle-class men will probably receive a poor critical review, irrespective of the box office takings or the quality of the film.  The harshest attacks from critics and the more aggressive side of the twittersphere are usually aimed at cinema produced for teenage girls, even if they are one of the most vocal audiences at declaring their love for the films/franchises that they embrace.  The tragedy here seems to be the lack of imagination from other demographics of filmgoers at empathizing enough with young women/girls in order to enjoy a film that is aimed at them.

MacDonald’s adaption of Meg Rosoff’s much-loved debut How I Live Now is a film that unashamedly gets inside the head of it’s teenage protagonist.  From the second it opens we hear a cacophony of teenage angst inside the head of Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), who we then follow for almost every shot of the film.  Daisy is a 16 year old American girl who has been sent to England for the summer to spend some time with her 3 cousins, Edmond (George MacKay), Issac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird) and her Aunt Penn, who incidentally works for the UN.  She initially resents this move but ends up falling for the quiet and outdoorsy Eddie.  The narrative thus begins as a teenage love story…

Monday, October 7, 2013

Film Review: The Pervert's Guide To Ideology (Sophie Fiennes) 2013

The Pervert's Guide To Ideology
For those who don’t already know of him, Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian cultural theorist that uses psychoanalysis and Marxist theory (amongst many other ideas) in order to uncover the hidden ideological challenges and reinforcements contained in moments in pop culture.  He has written countless op-eds about geopolitics and the decline of the USSR, as well as analysing popular films and cultural trends as reflections of popular conversatism / capitalism.

In The Pervert’s Guide… he returns for a second installment of cinematic deconstruction using iconic (and guilty pleasure) moments from the last half century of film history to explore his ideas about ideology – the central tenet of his argument being that at precisely the moment when you expect to be taking a break from politics and ideology, it is influencing you the most on screen.  He does this mainly by delivering a lecture (or series of mini-lectures) in the form of a voice-over projected over a number of clips from classic films. Alongside this however are moments where he steps into the set, dressed in character, in order to reflect on the ideology of the film whilst inside the action – as in the picture below from Titanic.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Upcoming Films - Dark Side of the American Dream

There are three film coming up towards the end of this year that look brilliant - and furthermore they all seem to focus on the dark side of the American Dream Factory.  The first film focuses on Hollywood, the second is set within DisneyLand and the third shows a pair of high school kids simulating a school shooting.  All have obvious themes of media and postmodernism, all of them revealing the inner workings of the 'culture industries' (Film, Theme Parks, Television) in a dark way:

The first is the joint venture from Paul Schrader (Director) and Bret Easton Ellis (Screenwriter).  I have an unhealthy obsession with Ellis and can't wait to see his first cinematic narrative (regardless of the questionable response from its American release.) The film focuses on an unhealthy relationship between an amateur filmmaker (James Deen) and his leading star (Lindsay Lohan) who is having an affair.  The symbolism of using a porn actor and a troubled child-star in this narrative provides an apt metaphor for Hollywood and exploitation...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Film Review: Hank - 5 Years From The Brink (Joe Berlinger) 2013

5 Years From The Brink

If there is one thing that historians, politicians, economists and other cultural commentators can agree on, it is that everybody loves a milestone.  Five years after the financial quasi-apocalypse that reverberated around the world, documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger (director of the epic Paradise Lost documentary trilogy) sits down with the man at the epicentre of the crisis to look back and explore what happened and why. 

Hank Paulson was the Treasury Secretary at the time and was part of the most exciting/terrifying moment in modern globalisation.  The only problem is: can he explain the mind-bogglingly complicated financial products in a way that audiences can understand? (Especially as the investment bankers themselves weren’t sure about them.)

The film has been created with two long interviews with Hank and his wife Wendy, surrounded with news media footage of the crisis as it unfolded.  Having made a lot of notes during this film, allow me to attempt to explain the narrative of the before remarking on the construction of the film: