Monthly Archives: August 2009

The State of Swedish Cinemas Today

It’s not often you can blame a single supermarket (branch, not chain) for both winding you, shattering your childhood memories, and brining a glaze of tears to your eye. Unimposing as it may seem, this very supermarket did just that.

Filmstaden Söder

But first some clarification: growing up I had the good fortune of living in Sweden, and being of certain stock both in genes and culture I will forever be pining for the Holms. Or more precisely the Stock-holm, and its’ southern isle where I grew up.

In primary school I remember brashly boasting that I could see the new multiplex, the Palace of Cinema (or Biopalatset to give its indigenous name) from my bedroom window. It took some precarious leaning out of said window, but I could see the red glow of the sign, and it took me less than two minutes door to door. Lasting memories of seeing Jurassic Park with both my parents at a very tender age (as allowed with the Swedish 11-A certificate) was unquestionably a formative experience. Countless 90’s Batman films, less so.

Biopalatset

Biopalatset was run by the Sandrews corporation, whose rivalry with SF Bio was a constant thorn in the side of every child post-Christmas. Everyone was guaranteed to receive cinema gift vouchers for Xmas, and the days up to New Year would be busy with cine-going. Yet making plans with friends was always compounded by the fact that I would have vouchers for SF and Alex would have vouchers for Sandrews. Two incompatible sets of vouchers meant that instead of 1 free cinema visit for the both of us, we instead had to make do with two discounted trips. I’m sure it was tremendously profitable for all conglomerates involved. But that was life, and ultimately I saw more films, which was probably for the best.

When I was a fair bit older I moved back to the UK to start university. A year later Sandrews went bankrupt. Now I’m not saying anything, but then who am I to say if it was more than coincidence?

In the short term Sandrews was sold onto a new conglomerate called Astoria cinemas, who after considerable restructuring attempted to carry on business as usual. Yet in the face of the established SF cinemas the new Astoria chain was unable to secure enough exclusives from America, and after two years they too went bankrupt. SF leapt on the chance to buy up the competition, but many expected Sweden’s stringent anti-trust laws would defer any risk of a monopoly. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case as no other bidders were willing to shoulder the multi-million kroner debts that had been building up.

Victoria Svenska Bio GötgatanThe monopoly was set, and all that was left outside SF were the independent cinemas. Former Sandrews cinemas like Victoria fell under the mantle of indie out-fit Svenska Bio, others were boarded up or sold to other interests. Victoria is a fine example of a cinema working hard to survive in the pockets outside the mainstream. As can be seen in the photo, the cinema is now subtitled ‘barista’ supplementing film exhibition with the sale of coffee. A bit of a shame, but then you can’t begrudge the efforts of the indies to stay afloat.

And so to the supermarket. The multiplex I could see as a kid was Biopalatset, run by Sandrews, and built into the basement of the Söderhallarna shopping centre. When I was a teenager SF opened another multiplex, Filmstaden Söder, in the other end of the shopping centre, for such were the heady ways of this cinematic rivalry. Opening to great pomp, the complex boasted ear-blisteringly loud speakers in every imaginable crevice. It was the local cinema of choice for epic fare like the Lord of the Rings, or even the Epic FAIL of Star Wars: Episode 1.

It was to my horror then that on a recent trip to Sweden I found the still relatively fresh multiplex Filmstaden Söder had been turned into a brand new, not even day-old supermarket. As if to echo the irony of the two multiplexes’ close proximity/competition, this new supermarket is built underneath a rival supermarket. Who says markets cannot effectively compete under the shiny mantle of Swedish socialism?

Walking into the former foyer of the cinema I just felt a wave of sadness for the disappearance of something nominally ‘cultural’ and part of my youth having been turned into another surplus-to-requirements supermarket. Beyond my own nostalgic feelings for a multiplex of all things, a deep seated worry towards the precedents of exhibition history also presented itself. Simply put, the transformation of cinemas into supermarkets is the death knell of a cinema trade in recession. In broad terms, in both Sweden and the UK, the death of the weekly cinemagoing of the post-war generation was brought about by television, with the conversion of cinemas into supermarkets being a direct result of the widespread closures. The marks of the last wave can be seen in both Stockholm (with the kvartersbion) and Sheffield (with the suburban cinemas) with the sites of previous cinemas clearly marked on the sites of modern supermarkets. The Co-op in Crookes, the Nettos in Walkey and Hillsborough for Sheffield, and a number of ICA’s in Östermalm and Kungsholmen are but a few you can mention.

Röda Kvarn Urban OutfittersThis latest wave started in Stockholm thre years ago when SF sold off the historically important Röda Kvarn cinema in central Stockholm. Opened in 1915, Röda Kvarn was the oldest surviving cinema in region, a proper picture palace of the grandest ilk which was meticulously maintained. It cost a margin extra to go there, but there was little chagrin in paying to see modern film in a bizarrely historical setting. When it was sold off there were a few voices of discontent, balanced with an appreciation for the (at the time) struggling SF to sell off a cinema on Stockholm’s equivalent of Bond Street. In a matter of months the cinema was turned into Stockholm’s first Urban Outfitters, and the private boxes of old now took a different role as changing booths for the cities well moneyed hipsters.

With cinema-going in Sweden on a marked upturn in recent years you would think that the selling-off would have ceased, but with the monopoly that SF has on the mainstream it carries on regardless, cherry picking what stays open and what gets shut. As the closures show, their priorities lie solely towards profit over quality and diversity. Prices go up, the number of screens drop, the range of films gets slimmer, overall accessibility decreases, audiences miss out.

It’s difficult to say what impact this is all having on the nation’s film production, as to many eyes it’s in rude health. Let the Right One In and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have caused ripples internationally this last year, but these success are far too irregular for a nation which consistently punches above its weight in the world of popular music and literature.

bio rioBut there are glimmers of hope. The last single screen local cinema (or Kvartersbio) in Stockholm, Bio Rio in Hornstull struggled on for a long time, run by a very old but very determined man. It used to be my grandparents weekly cinema of choice, and only a couple of years ago I saw Death Proof there. Truly a cinema across the generations.

Box office, ticket tearing and projection were all run by this one guy, who was persistently in the local press telling of his struggles to keep the rent from skyrocketing. When he announced his retirement many thought that was another cinema shut, but full plaudits to the cultural organisation Folkets Hus och Parker (the National Federation of People’s Parks and Community Centres) for stepping in and reviving it. Renovation, installation of digital projectors with the option for 3D film and live link ups to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and a bursting film programme aimed directly at increased audience engagement. And reasonable prices too.

It’s only a 200 seater cinema, and it deserve better than parallels drawn to David and Goliath. It remains a tremendous hope in an otherwise dark situation. A glimmer of hope for the way things should be. A real palace for cinema, and not just another filmic supermarket.

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Kill Switch and the DTV Star System

Being of a certain age I can unfortunately not claim to have seen one of the Big Man’s films on the Big Screen. Yet by the peculiar quirk of advertising I have still seen the Big Man himself on the Big Screen, so with begrudging gratitude to Orange telecoms I direct you to this:

It is, almost without question, one of, if not THE best thing he has done on screen in the last ten years. Needless vehicle-based chases, inexplicable explosions, a flourish of spoken Japanese, a sense of humour, and most astonishingly some genuine ass-kicking (albeit without any nut-cracking) from Seagal himself! No stunt-double!

Those dear marketing execs really outdid themselves in boiling down the essence of what we, the baying hordes, demand from a Seagal film. The irony is that this is literally what he is trying to escape with the Rom-com script he is touting to the fictional Orange execs. The double irony is that this mirrors Seagal own attempts to break out of the action mould, evident in traces through films like Kill Switch and other recent DTV films. Granted, the advert takes it to an extreme level of absurdity, but there is a bizarre poignancy in seeing Steve play out the bizarre Catch 22 he will forever be stuck in. It’s the self-reflexive postmodern genius of JCVD all over again, only condensed into a single minute. Call ‘over-analysis’ all you like, the dogs-dinner script and editing of Kill Switch is proof if any where needed that what Steven wants and what Steven gets are two very separate things.

For all the collected mistakes and shoddy breaks in almost all of Seagal’s recent DTV output, Kill Switch bears the marks of a film with grand intentions that just came crashing down in the edit. As executive producer, writer and lead actor in the film, you cannot help but wonder how much beyond mere finances Seagal had invested in this film. The Making-of that accompanies the film paints the picture of a team genuinely set on pushing some boundaries in terms of your average Seagal action DTV

Steven, the director, all the main actors, everyone lines up to discuss the nuance and the complexities of the story. Jacob King, the controversial detective at the heart of the film is discussed and Steven goes into some detail about the challenges of getting to grips with a man who is just as obsessed an perverted as the serial killers he pursues. The director also goes to some pains to describe a couple of scenes in the film and how he chose to shoot them, even going so far as to show a storyboard for the flying-out-of-a-window-seventeen-times sequence. He doesn’t corroborate my own rather bold reading of the sequence as a revisionist take on Hollywood editing, but there is proof at least that this wasn’t a wholly unplanned hodge-podge.

kill switch making of directorPerhaps most telling is that the interview with the director is shot in the editing room, in front of the editing suite with a cut of the film running in the background. Said cut of the film features a edit of the window-seventeen scene that differs significantly from the cut in the finished product. Fewer cuts, a shorter sequence, and another argument against my revisionist reading. It is impossible to guess at what stage in post production the interview was conducted, but on some level it does illustrate the different stages of where the Making-of was made, compared to the final edit of the film.

Kill Switch StoryboardIndeed I feel it is safe to say that the film that the cast discuss in the Making-of is separate from the film as it ended up on the DVD. It is possibly the most incoherent mess you could ever conceive of outside of experimental filmmaking. Characters appear and disappear, the story progresses without any sense of purpose, with more plot holes than a rural backlane. Almost worst of all, Steven’s character unexpectedly lashes out in brutal acts of ultra-violence. Think American History X curb stomping, but without the emotional impact.

Seagal’s character is wholly and totally morally irreprehensible. A chauvinist, a sadist, and a down right Arsehole.

He could very well pull off the nuance and complexities of such a character, and his fellow cast and director seemed to believe so too. The producers evidently, much like the Orange execs, did not and saw fit to chop and change the film to make it best fit the picture we all have of Seagal as an action hero. The simple fact is that DTV producers play the market much as the exploitation producers of the 1970’s did. Catch the eye with a bold poster (or DVD cover), and to hell with whether it actually lives up to the promise, as long as the punters just come flocking.

Seagal is a name everyone recognises. It is a hallmark of certain kind of rather conventional action film. Hire the name and you have a certain amount of box office guaranteed. Simple.

Exploitation producers didn’t care much whether a film actually lived up to it’s title, provided the title was good in the first place. Seagal’s name is on the poster, so why are these DTV producers so desperate to recut the film? A crying shame, as it would have been refreshing to see Seagal at least try to flesh out a multidimensional character.

Oh yes, and did I mention that Isaac Hayes is in this film? There’s another name for the poster. As a pathologist no less.

Kill switch montage

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The Long Road to Rumba

I love films, I love reading about films and I love hearing what people think about films. Far too much of my idle time is spent keeping up to date on what the so called legitimate opinion-makers have to say about a film. Trawling through the newspapers in a café considerate enough to oblige me with a few, is just about my favourite way of spending a Friday morning. ‘What’s misery-guts Bradshaw got to say about this week’s blockbuster?’ ‘How many borrowed French terms can Sandhu squeeze into his review of this latest Apatow comedy?’ ‘How many sentences will it be before Philip French actually mentions the film he’s reviewing?’
Half the joy is in knowing the quirks of the pay-rolled reviewers, almost anticipating how they’ll handle some tent-pole genre film which is inevitably going to rile them. Might they be won over? Might they harbour some unexpected respect for the feature? Some of the blandest opinion pieces invariably come from anonymous film reviews, where the publications’ ‘line’ comes before the individual’s opinion. After all, how can you trust an opinion which is on some level decided by committee?
Reviews are obviously a product of the huge clunky PR machine, and a consequence of this is the sometimes headachingly London-centric nature of the criticism. I’m sure it’s wonderful that the National Film Theatre in London has put on Hitchcock’s Notorious, and I’m sure if we’re lucky us hicks in the provinces might get a peek at it 3-4 months down the line as the one copy of it goes on tour. But do we really need all the critics to come chiming in that it’s a five star film? A re-issue of Great Expectations doesn’t need the critics to come out and tell us that it’s ‘A Literary Classic: 5 out of 5’ so why so with film?
Maybe picking up on Notorious is a petty example, and god bless the BFI and the NFT and everything they do. But the gap between criticism and distribution came crashing and screaming to the fore last week with the wide reaching coverage of Rumba. A ‘deadpan, vivid-coloured French comedy’ with ‘the spirit of Tati’ about a couple discovering life after a car crash. So the critics tell me.
The Guardian liked it, 500 words, 4 stars. The Telegraph didn’t, 50 words, 1 star. Time Out weighed in, as did the Observer, The Scotsman, Total Film, Empire, The Shitty Free London Paper, as well as Filmstar and Little White Lies. Even a mention on Radio 4’s The Film Programme. A resounding success in terms of blanket coverage, as this rather small film got picked up by such a swathe of non-tabloid press.
So what was its’ nationwide box office takings for the opening weekend?
£1158
Maybe you shouldn’t expect more from a film only shown on three screens, but man alive, a pinch over a grand? At a conservative estimate, taking ticket prices at between £6-£9, somewhere between 150 and 200 people saw this film. I know critics don’t pay for tickets, and won’t have contributed to the box office, but by those calculations about 1% of the total audience for this film was the press.
You might mistake this for a dip-into-the-cinema-before-an-almost-direct-to-video release, much as happened with the inwardly looking ass-kicking antics of JCVD earlier this year. A week in the art houses of London, and then nationwide on DVD. C’est la vie, as our man Jean Claude might say, nothing wrong with getting some press coverage of an action film otherwise easily overlooked. At least we still have the DVD.
Not so with Rumba. A week at the ICA seems to be it for this intriguing if irritatingly elusive feature. No word of a nationwide tour, no word of a DVD release. I could import it without subtitles from France, and maybe I’d manage to grasp this (by all accounts) slapstick heavy comedy. But €23+ is a lot of money for a film I can only partially understand. The internet gophers tell me that this film can be found on the usual channels of peg-legged contraband, and that some wonderful person has even gone to the trouble of making their own English subtitles for it.
Tragically that seems to be my only avenue for seeing this film, and I’m not overjoyed at the thought of undercutting a movie whose UK box office I could knock up 1% by going to see it in a cinema with a friend. For the time being I’ll pass on it, fingers crossed it might break out nationwide. Or at least near-me-wide. I’m glad the critics (by and large) enjoyed the film, and thanks for letting us know, but it begs the blunt if honest question: Why Bother?

Rumba film leftRumba film rightI love films, I love reading about films and I love hearing what people think about films. Far too much of my idle time is spent keeping up to date on what the so called legitimate opinion-makers have to say about a film. Trawling through the newspapers in a café  is just about my favourite way of spending a Friday morning. ‘What’s misery-guts Bradshaw got to say about this week’s blockbuster?’ ‘How many French terms can Sandhu squeeze into his take of the latest Apatow comedy?’ ‘How many sentences before Philip French actually mentions the film he’s reviewing?’

Half the joy is in knowing the quirks of the pay-rolled reviewers, almost anticipating how they’ll handle some tent-pole genre film which is inevitably going to rile them. Might they be won over? Might they harbour some unexpected respect for the feature? Some of the blandest opinion pieces invariably come from anonymous film reviews, where the publications’ ‘line’ comes before the individual’s opinion. After all, how can you trust an opinion which is on some level decided by committee?

rumba02Reviews are obviously a product of the huge clunky PR machine, and a consequence of this is the sometimes headachingly London-centric nature of the criticism. I’m sure it’s wonderful that the National Film Theatre in London has put on Hitchcock’s Notorious, and I’m sure if we’re lucky us hicks in the provinces might get a peek at it 3-4 months down the line as the one copy of it goes on tour. But do we really need all the critics to come chiming in that it’s a five star film? A re-issue of Great Expectations doesn’t need the critics to come out and tell us that it’s ‘A Literary Classic: 5 out of 5’ so why so with film?

Maybe picking up on Notorious is a petty example, and god bless the BFI and the NFT and everything they do. But the gap between criticism and distribution came crashing and screaming to the fore last week with the wide reaching coverage of Rumba. A ‘deadpan, vivid-coloured French comedy’ with ‘the spirit of Tati’ about a couple discovering life after a car crash. So the critics tell me.

The Guardian liked it, 500 words, 4 stars. The Telegraph didn’t, 50 words, 1 star. Time Out weighed in, as did the Observer, The Times, The Scotsman, Total Film,  as well as Filmstar and Little White Lies. Even a mention on Radio 4’s The Film Programme. A resounding success in terms of blanket coverage, as this rather small film got picked up by the bulk of British non-tabloid press.

So what was its’ nationwide box office takings for the opening weekend?

£1158

Maybe you shouldn’t expect more from a film only shown on three screens, but man alive, a pinch over a grand? At a conservative estimate, taking ticket prices at between £6-£9, somewhere between 150 and 200 people saw this film. I know critics don’t pay for tickets and won’t have contributed to the box office, but by those calculations about 1% of the total audience for this film was the press.

Rumba01You might mistake this for a dip-into-the-cinema-before-an-almost-direct-to-video release, much as happened with the inwardly looking ass-kicking antics of JCVD earlier this year. A week in the art houses of London, and then nationwide on DVD. C’est la vie, as our man Jean Claude might say, nothing wrong with getting some press coverage of an action film otherwise easily overlooked. At least we still have the DVD.

Not so with Rumba. A week at the ICA seems to be it for this intriguing if irritatingly elusive feature. No word of a nationwide tour, no word of a DVD release. I could import it without subtitles from France, and maybe I’d manage to grasp this (by all accounts) slapstick heavy comedy. But €23+ is a lot of money for a film I can only partially understand. The internet gophers tell me that this film can be found on the usual channels of peg-legged contraband, and that some wonderful person has even gone to the trouble of making their own English subtitles for it.

Tragically that seems to be my only avenue for seeing this film, and I’m not overjoyed at the thought of undercutting a movie whose UK box office I could knock up 1% by going to see it in a cinema with a friend. For the time being I’ll pass on it, fingers crossed it might break out nationwide. Or at least near-me-wide. I’m glad the critics (by and large) enjoyed the film, and thanks for letting us know, but it begs the blunt if honest question: Why Bother?

Rumba04

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The Beyond

A word of advice: never, ever, attempt to eat dinner while watching a Video Nasty.

closeup eyes

That may be the most obvious statement in the world, but up until this point I’d quite happily whiled hours away watching Axe or even the autocannibalistic Anthropophagus while having bolognese, or the occasional pie and chips. The Beyond however, has broken new territory in terms of gore, effectively putting me off the film/food combination for the foreseeable future. The revulsion I felt while trying to have cottage pie during the first ten minutes of this film almost put me clean off Video Nasties all together. Faces covered in acid, melting and bubbling away does not good dinner company make.

sideprofile01Aside from the ridiculously stomach-testing gore, Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond stands out from the morass of films on the DPP list (covered so far) as a rock solid horror in its own right. A passable script which harks back to Lovecraft, a spectrum of decent actors who know how to look terrorized when necessary, and a budget bigger than cost of an average car. Throw in some location shooting in Louisiana, and you have a thoroughly shocking film.  Perhaps most satisfyingly of all, it has a cinematographer who knows how to use his camera, creating shots which give the carnage beyond chucking red paint around. After the flat camera work of The Beast in Heat and the sub-art-school student shooting of Axe, The Beyond proves to be a visual feast.

sideprofile02The premise of a young and successful woman acquiring a haunted hotel in Louisana is pretty workaday in terms of haunted house films. The over-reaching blonde, destined to be terrorised into submission, and eventual victory, blah-di-blah, heard it all before. The Beyond goes one step further by placing the hotel on one of the seven gates to Hell, and consequently hordes of the shuffling dead end up stumbling into disrupt our poor ladies renovation plans. Absurd as it sounds, the premise gives the film a bonafide hellish overtone, mixing unspeakable horrors with the restless damned crawling out of limbo. These are not just corpse-puppets, animated by some obscure Macguffinesque virus, but the product of something larger and far more sinister. It is, quite simply, the tagline of Dawn of the Dead come true: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth”

sideprofile03Following the tremendous success of Zombi II (unofficial sequel to the very same Dawn of the Dead) and City of the Living Dead, Fulci had established his name internationally as a director of top drawer zombie flicks. Wary of being tied to such a narrow niche, Fulci sought to strike out in a new direction of horror with his next film. The first script of The Beyond was initially penned as a straight haunted house film, but under pressure from his zombie-hungry German financers, Fulci was convinced to include zombies to help provide a physical presence of horror. The combination was, and still is, tremendously effective.

The terror of the subjective is explored in full, with the film’s heroine is constanly uncertain of what she is seeing and hearing. An eerie blind young girl and her German Shepherd repeatedly warn Liza away from the hotel, and their warnings might be heeded if they didn’t constantly appear to her in the most dreamlike of sequences. Clinging mist, clipped dialogue and numerous doubletakes lend these sequences a truly uncanny edge. Liza is told that she’s just a figment of her imagination, yet the poor blind girl ends up getting mauled by her own dog. A physical and gruesome end to a weirdly ethereal character.

sideprofile04The gore is really testing, even for the most hardened blood’n’guts fiends. While the sequences leading up to the burst of violence are grippingly shot, the piercing/popping/ripping/bubbling moments in question are unflinching, more often than not in extreme close-up. Is it gratutious? In part yes, but the horror of it all has such an impact that it cannot be dispelled as frivolous. One sequence of a man’s face getting ripped to shreds by massive (dummy) spiders is particularly hard to shake off, and I’m not even that much of an arachnophobe.

The last ten minutes of the film turns into a slightly ridiculous rollercoaster, lurching from the hotel, to an explosive yet straight-laced zombie shoot-out in the hospital, to a bizarre relocation back to the underbelly of the hotel again. Before your head’s had a chance to stop spinning Liza and her last minute knight in shining armour have stumbled into the underworld. Stunned by the unspeakable and unseen ‘things’ they witness, the film ends with them blinded, glaring horrified back at the camera. A brilliant Lovecraftian flourish to end on, and a bleak and satsifying end to a brilliant horror film.

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