Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Film Review: The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki) 2012

The House I Live In
Every now and again a documentary is released that, when summed up in a sentence, don’t seem to offer anything new.  Supersize Me claimed that McDonalds was bad for you; Sicko claims that Americans lose out because of their corrupt healthcare system; Religulous explores the contradictions between religions.  All admirable subjects, but they’re hardly eye-opening.  The new film from Eugene Jarecki can be summed up in a single sentence too:  The war on drugs is harming Americans instead of protecting them.  The shocking thing from watching the film is how many Americans don’t already know this…

The film follows Jarecki as he travels around the country as an omniscient voiceover exploring the history of drug prohibition, the vilification of drug abusers and the criminal justice system that incarcerates them.  The thesis of the film suffers from considerable mission creep as the initial question that is posed is ‘how many people are involved in the drug war?’ yet it slowly evolves into ‘why and how are African-Americans disproportionately involved in the process?’

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Interview with Mike Lerner (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer)

The brilliant documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is due to be released this year telling the story of the all girl punk band who were arrested in Russia after performing one of their songs in a cathedral.

I managed to talk to Mike Lerner (director) this week in order to discuss the film and the politics behind it.  Here is an abridged version of the conversation:

[Ollie] How did you get involved with the project?  Do you have any links with Russia?

[Mike] Well I’ve made a lot of art and cultural films and I know Russia and the former Soviet Union very well.  I grew up in the ‘70s as a punk so the image of them [Pussy Riot] in the British press back in January immediately sparked something in me (laughs).  I love films about art and politics and this was obviously a tremendous story, of course, after they had been arrested, so we got involved after they were arrested for this absurd act.  We flew to Moscow and started to get involved with everybody the legal team and the friends and family.  We followed the events across the Summer until the verdict in October, dashed back to New York to cut the film for Sundance in January.

Of course the story is still ongoing, not a week passes without some sort of Pussy Riot news, whether it is Maria’s hunger strike or the upcoming Olympics, which I think will be a big focus for pro-Pussy Riot, anti-Putin rallies.

I really enjoyed that in the middle of the film you gave the film a bit of time to look back at [Nadia, Masha and Katia’s] upbringings and their early political beginnings.  How did you get access to the Carriers of the Cross [an extreme religious organization that opposes Pussy Riot]?

Well these people are obsessed with themselves and are very easy to get on camera, they wanted to demonstrate their beliefs at every possible opportunity.  So actually you just ask them and they’ll give you whatever you want!  We were thinking of making a reality TV series with them, as clearly they are a quite humorous bunch…  But actually they represent a potentially violent and quite horrible element in Russian society – an extreme nationalist / religious outpouring, which is something that Putin has very much encouraged and provoked.  Indeed the whole Pussy Riot trial is very much a product of this.
 It wasn’t only that Pussy Riot offended belief; they offended the church and therefore the state.  They have been characterized as foreign agents trying to undermine the state and yet the truth is far from that – they are very patriotic young women who are trying to create a more just society for their children to live in.

One of the questions I wanted to ask is about the religious misunderstanding and the difference between the American reactions to the film versus the European.  Obviously there is a big difference between our religious tolerance and dissidents.  Do the anti-pussy riot commentators vary in each country?

It’s a good question; I think that the Russian communities in America are very conservative, as is typical of ex patriot communities.  They are very much against Pussy Riot, and I think that what it interesting is that they have had a lot of support coming from Republican senators and from the right, yet if they really delved into what Pussy Riot stood for and believed in then perhaps they wouldn’t be so supportive – yet they see it as a very simple anti-Putin, pro-freedom of speech story.  It does seem to fit with a kind of nostalgia for the cold war where we have seen a kind of return to cold war rhetoric in America in regards to Russia.  I think that people are hankering for those days.  I think that most politicians who support them wouldn’t for a second if they knew what they were really about – it’s a healthy paradox.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

R.I.P James Gandolfini

It is truly a sad day for American media today as it has been announced that James Gandolfini has died suddenly of a heart attack on holiday in Rome.  He was a brilliant TV and cinema actor making his name (of course) and capturing the zeitgeist in the HBO series The Sopranos.

If you look back on his career it is amazing how many films he was in where he was given an important role.  He was such a presence that he invariably played mob bosses, generals, mayors and C.I.A directors.  He was pigeonholed in the best way possible by always playing the existential patriarch.

My on personal favourite performance was that of the Lt. Gen George Miller in Armando Iannucci's In The Loop.  He gave the character a depth and humanity that came easy to him.  He will be missed...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Film Review: Desert Runners (Jennifer Steinman) 2013

Desert Runners

It never fails to amaze me how few of the people who love cinema love documentaries.  Considering how much ‘reality’ TV dominates the television schedule it seems a shame that more people don’t support ‘reality’ cinema.  Maybe that’s the reason though; people are saturated with reality and want Michael Bay endorsed nonsense on the big screen.  Whatever the reason, it is a real shame as I have just finished watching one of my favourite films of the year so far – a documentary about four people undertaking a ‘grand slam’ in desert running.

The film follows Dave (56), Ricky (35), Samantha (25) and Tremaine (40) and others as they undertake four ultra-marathons across four deserts across the world in one year.  They start in the Atacama desert in Chile, the driest desert in the world in which it hasn’t rained in 400 years, then they move on to the Gobi desert in China, which is the windiest desert, then to the Sahara, the hottest, and then finally to Antarctica.  In each of these they run 250km in seven days and have to carry all of their equipment on their backs at all times.  They have checkpoints throughout with medical assistance and water, but they run the majority on their own…  wow.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Film Review: Village at the End of the World (Sarah Gavron, David Katznelson) 2012

Village at the End of the World

Some documentaries exist in order to tell an untold story and some exist to shine a light on an unknown location or group of people.  The new film fro Sarah Gavron manages to do both brilliantly by documenting the struggles of a tiny village in north Greenland with a population of 59.  The inhabitants of Niaqornat are beginning to realise that if their numbers drop below 50 then their existence is in peril so they must band together in order to save their village factory and continue their isolated but functional way of life.

The film spans four different seasons that the villagers have to endure including Kaperlak (“the time of darkness”) where they have no sunlight for a few months, and Sikusimaneri (“the time of ice”) where the sea freezes and the hunters go off to find polar bears.  The scenery in this section of the film is mindblowing as the mountains, icebergs and the ocean all fuse together to make a snowy wonderland in which the villagers go for husky rides and play.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Film Review: Wrong Time Wrong Place (John Appel) 2012

Wrong Time Wrong Place

Around this time last year I was waking up to the news that someone had committed a rampage killing in a cinema in Colorado, USA and had killed 12 people.  Like most people, I was stunned by the cruelty and nihilism of the heinous act.  However, unlike most people (it seemed) I was equally worried about the ease in which the reporters were relaying the information on the news:  It seemed like they were following a ‘script’ that was to be used in times of tragedies.  By the time the Sandy Hook tragedy happened other commentators were talking of the same phenomenon of media coverage – especially the horror author Stephen King.  In response to these incidents I wrote my MA dissertation about mass shootings and media coverage.

When I heard about a film about the Utoya massacre called Wrong Time Wrong Place I was initially worried that it would be a sensationalist recreation of the events that tried to get ‘inside the mind of the killer’ or ‘recreate the final moments of the victims’.  Fortunately it is a very different film about luck, coincidence and fate, relying entirely on the stories of those that were connected to the terrible day.  If you are unaware of the events that occurred in Norway then you need to find them out from somewhere else, as the film does not explain them to you – presumably to avoid the risk of undermining anyone’s version of the events.

Film Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams) 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

All franchise reboots are put into a tricky position when it comes to addressing their audiences.  On the one hand they want to attract younger, new crowds who want to see an origin story mixed with some action; on the other hand they need to include enough reference to the originally successful narrative in order to not alienate the true fans.  This means that you usually get a mixture of coming-of-age set pieces with some awkward familiar catch phrases hanging together with a quest that introduces an arch-villain that has usually been defeated in an earlier, classic episode.  ST:ID has all of the above turned up to 11 (cliché alert).

The original Star Trek series created by Gene Rodenberry was a political statement.  By showing the future in detail, you got to make assumptions and critiques about the present (i.e. 1960s America).  Rodenberry was clearly a progressive optimist who thought that America would eventually transcend its racism and settle the score with Russia (by including the ‘Russian’ character Chekov).  The new film is a lot more pessimistic…

Monday, June 10, 2013

Harbour Lights Refurbishment

My favourite cinema is closing on the 25th of June for a refurbishment.  They are redesigning the screens and spicing up the toilets and making it an all round even better place.  They show decent films, have a great bar and have the best view of any cinema in the country that I can imagine...

The cinema is the building in the middle at the bottom with the white back wall
Please come along, before or after the refurb,  as they are a great bunch and the atmosphere is always lovely... They are opening again for films on the 12th of July

(note - pictures are from google images)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Film Review: Behind The Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh) 2013

Behind The Candelabra

The new film from Steven Soderbergh is an interesting example of enjoying a film’s content versus its context.  In and of itself, the film is a super-fun and glitzy spectacle looking into the fabulous life of Liberace.  Off screen, the film is potentially a tragic symptom of a rigidly prejudiced and homophobic America seemingly out of odds with the rest of the world.  Soderbergh claims that the film was ‘too gay’ for the big studios so instead released it directly to HBO to screen on television – others are resisting this accusation.  Whether or not this is the case, it is clear that Hollywood is still miles behind the reality of American opinion with only Milk and Brokeback Mountain having has any real success as ‘gay movies’.   Behind The Candelabra tells the real life story of Liberace, or Lee (Michael Douglas), and his tumultuous relationship to the younger Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).

The actions of the Hollywood studio system (if true) are homophobic in the truest sense of the word: They were literally scared of the image of gay men.  This film is an openly gay film from start to finish and doesn’t shy away from images and dialogue about gay sex.  Regardless of what is to be made of Liberace’s more bizarre lifestyle choices, it is a refreshing message that two men can love each other as any other couple:  complaining about each other snoring, lounge around watching TV together, engaging in pillow talk about the future…  The representation of the more mundane parts of their relationship was what made them feel most realistic.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Film Review: Byzantium (Neil Jordan) 2013

There is a line in the terrible parody film Vampires Suck that states that ‘in the 80s, coke was all the rage; the 90s, grunge. Now it's the era of vampires.’ (borrowed from Peter Bradshaw).  With all of the many glossy American vampire films passing me by with little to no interest, my ears perked up to an independent British vampire film set in a dreary seaside town.

The film begins in a strip club with a feisty dancer called Clara (Gemma Arterton) being harassed by a client, intercut with the broody and poetic teen Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) writing her life story and then throwing the pages to the wind.  Clara leaves the club and is then chased by a mysterious man in a suit who she brutally decapitates; meanwhile Eleanor meets an old man who she calmly offers a peaceful end to before systematically draining all of his blood.  Lo and behold, they’re vampires.