Tag Archives: Film Journalism

Showing at the Watershed: Berberian Sound Studio

In the realm of modern popular cinema the expectation is that the craft remains for the most part seamless. The editing should not be distracting, the cinematography should not be too self-conscious, the score should not be too overbearing. Where these lines are drawn is the cut and thrust of film criticism itself, and one person’s subtlety is another’s frying-pan to the head. When a film comes along that tugs at these very seams, and indeed starts pulling them apart, critics very easily, and not unjustifiably go into fits of ecstatic praise.

Some British critics are going absolutely wild for Berberian Sound Studio. In part this is because Berberian is a demonstration of how intricately sound can be woven into a picture, and having established this fundament the film quite merrily pulls it apart stitch by meticulous stitch. Knowing as this process is, the manner of this rather brutal deconstruction makes for a really compelling film.

A 1970s period piece set in the titular Italian sound studio, the fastidious British sound engineer Gilderoy is shipped over to help record the soundtrack to a brutal yet perennially unseen Italian horror film. When the sound effect artists are suddenly taken ill, it is poor Gilderoy who has to step away from the mixing desk, and into the role of hardcore vegetable mutilator. Plump marrows dropped from great heights; heads of cabbage given the slasher treatment; whole watermelons tenderized to pulp; radishes torn stalk from head, all towards recreating the symphony of agonies bestowed variously upon set upon schoolgirls, and tortured witches alike.

The sonic body horror is one part of the chorus, and a rotating gallery of vocal talents are drawn in to scream their lungs out, or merely to supply the inhuman howls and cackles of the fiends which haunt the film we’re still forbidden to see. Add to this mix the lilting creep of synthesisers, and the manually looped and manipulated samples of music and noise, and resulting score is just as frenetic and souped up as you’d expect of a 1970s Italian horror film. Gilderoy is a consummate master of his craft, and in Toby Jones‘ strikingly careful performance can be found a quiet joy in just watching him tinker, manipulate and layer all the sounds step by step.

In focusing on sound alone Berberian somehow exceeds the fictitious Giallo it’s supposed to be shadowing. It’s neither breathless or lurching in its dramatic shifts; instead it builds up a tense and anxious mood which is never really scary per se, just endlessly uneasy. Which of course is indubitably worse in its own quiet way. Match this with an uncertain narrative arc, a seamless (!) if occasionally disjointing transition between scenes, and a final act which leaves you grasping at every hint of a conclusion, and the sum total is a non-horror film which is quite impishly beguiling in its own right.

While the first flush of the UK release is limited to the larger arthouse cinemas across the country, the alternative option of watching the film ‘on-demand’ instantly via computer can only be recommended for those too far away from an obliging bricks-and-mortar cinema. Like Enter the Void, Berberian Sound Studio thrives on being played in a dark room with a big screen and a LOUD sound system, and a tinny laptop speaker isn’t going to capture the uneasy creaks and synthesised hums which really gives the film its nervous life.

When the big studios are unremitting in promoting 3D as cinema’s last premium-worthy USP, it’s quite telling that one of the last films funded using the UK Film Council’s ‘Low Budget Feature Film Scheme’ can prove how vital the cinema ‘experience’ is, without the need for plastic glasses or condescending adverts.

Four out of Five

Berberian Sound Studio is showing at the Watershed in Bristol for two weeks from the 31st of August 2012.

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Staking a Claim for Kill List

Playing ‘spot the location’ with Kill List is a pretty thankless task for a Sheffield resident. The better part of the film is set either in soul-less ring road hotel suites, if not in equally beige new-build suburbs. In a Q&A following a preview screening in Sheffield, the director even made it clear that “it’s not supposed to be Sheffield, really” and that a local audience could probably pick holes in a story that purports to stretch across a large, if indefinite, part of the country. And a near anonymous backdrop makes sense for an occasionally graphic horror film, the emotional imbalance of the hit-men set against a strangely lonely and faceless world.

In a country covered in generic branded service stations, corporate hotels, and near identical high streets, the setting almost gives the film a universal quality; a dullness any Brit could instantly recognise. And it’s hardly the first time that Sheffield and its environs have taken the role of ‘wholly generic British backdrop’. In most recent memory is the 2008 horror Hush, where the lifeless scenery of Yorkshire service stations punctuates the stalking terror of a motorway trip from hell. Finding horror in the everyday is something you might normally associate with British cultural staples like Dr Who or John Wyndham, and both Kill List and Hush do a fine job of conjuring really quite unsettling weirdness in a rather mundane world.

Those in the know will already have spotted that the common link between the two horrors is Warp Films, the independent film production company based in Sheffield. Higher up the funding chain we find Screen Yorkshire, who no doubt played a big part in selling the city as the best place for filming. One of my favourite, if somewhat esoteric, of film artefacts is a Screen Yorkshire location catalogue, a lavish picture book of sites around God’s Own Country that can represent a surprisingly broad range of settings.

It’s not quite as wildly optimistic as this location map put out by Paramount in 1927, yet the case it states is quite the same: Yorkshire’s more versatile than you might think.

Yet the degree of recognition any given audience can find in a film presents all kinds of issues. My previous post on Four Lions stirred up quite some interest in Sheffield readers keen to pinpoint those backdrops they half recognised from the film. You could even say that the local audience actually claimed some small ownership of the film, with the film screening for close to three months straight at the Showroom cinema in town, representing one of their largest ever box office successes. The fact that scenes of the film were shot on the roof of the same cinema probably didn’t hurt sales either.

Stepping back from this local perspective, even Four Lions positioned itself in a broad and non-specific setting. Its backdrop is a working class Northern city with a muslim population, which could easily be any city North of the Watford gap. Yet even this regional nuance was lost on some international critics, with the film reviewer of the Toronto Star noting that the film’s bumbling jihadists ‘live in or near London’; a misobservation a Sheffield local would likely not take lying down.

But to return to a question of audiences and ownership, what stakes can we ever legitimately claim to a film? Sheffielders took Four Lions to its heart, but in all probability won’t do so with Kill List, as there’s nothing local which they can claim as their own. Conversely a wider British audience of film critics and genre fans have already started championing Kill List as the best ‘British Horror/Thriller/Genre Film in Years’, garnering it with awards galore at FrightFest, with and four and five star reviews both left, right and centre.

Much as I enjoyed the film, it still somehow felt uneven, brilliant in parts but never with enough momentum to give the story’s twists and turns the heft to ever be convincing. The blowing of trumpets and banging of drums which has since followed all feels a bit out of proportion for a film which is good but still flawed.

Yet like a number of others who share these reservations, I still side on the concluding remark that it is worth seeing, and that we should all get behind it, more of this sort of thing, yes thank-you kindly! The ownership here is towards something broader, namely an independent British genre film with a modicum of ambition. Perhaps it’s a gross disservice to claim that people like the principle of the film more than the film itself, but I think you’d be hard pushed to ever actually separate the two.

However complicated and thorny this question is, the film is definitely worth a look. If nothing else I’m keen to hear how the film lands with others less conscious of championing or scorning the film. And furthermore and most importantly, I’m ever keen to hear from those who might be able to contribute to the location map below. As before, be warned for HERE BE SPOILERS:

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Showing at the Showroom: Catfish

It’s a hopeless period for films of the less-said-the-better ilk, but the new documentary Catfish hangs on this ledge more precariously than most. Acutely aware that reviews built on nothing but vagueness and generalities make for incredibly tedious reading, I will keep it brief. The short message: go and see it, preferably before some blabbermouth spoils it.

The thumbnail synopsis is that it’s the record of a slowly blossoming internet relationship-come-romance between a young New York photographer Nev, and Megan the half-sister of an 8 year old painting prodigy that’s taken to painting Nev’s work and sending it to him. Egged on by brother and friends, a trio set off to finally unite Nev and Megan ‘in real life’. When they finally get to rural Michigan ‘all is not as it seems’ and shit gets very ‘real’.

Beyond the contrivance and thriller cliché of the film’s blurb, the film builds towards its grand reveal, the volte face, the upending of everything by almost convincing you of its predictability. The endless narcissism of the project and its filmmakers gives the whole thing a decidedly questionable whiff of the Blair Witch Project, and the rather earnest and self-involved inflection of the oh-we’re-not-fauxumentary. And then the almighty SNAP comes, and you’re just left struggling to hold onto what the hell is going on. It’s frankly terrifying, and quite brilliant for just that.This is far from the first documentary this year to have foyer-critics hemming and herring over ‘what is REAL, really, in the greater scheme of things?’ But film philosophy undergraduatese aside, it delights me that in a connected dispute over music rights, the filmmakers might be forced to swear on oath to the veracity of the film. On oath! The TRUTH will finally come out! Or maybe we could just enjoy the film for the tangled and baffling mess that it is?

Five out of Five

Catfish is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 17th of December 2010.

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Gaming the Perspective on Film Reviews

Describe a film as being ‘like a videogame’ and you’ll immediately set my alarm bells ringing. Positive, negative, it doesn’t matter, the comparison will almost always open up a can of troublesome associations, and I really have to fight the knee-jerk reflexes of my inner teenager from wailing ‘BUT YOU DON’T GET IT, MAN’. I obviously haven’t a clue how familiar any one critic is or is not with the medium, and I’ve gotten myself in hot water before by decrying those obviously not L337 enough to know what they’re talking about, when in actual fact they are more than qualified to their own readings. Channelling these teenage frustrations more constructively, it becomes clear the issue is rather how agonisingly fluid the descriptor is, and that using the term unqualified denies any meaningful signification beyond the surface of either medium. The term shouldn’t be limiting in its application, and by engaging with it beyond the clichés we can perhaps touch upon the strange morphology between the two.

To wit, some examples:

Enter the Void is just like a videogame. Not in the obvious frame of being like a run-and-gun action game with its’ fixed first, then third person perspective, but rather that it’s just like Tetris. No, it’s not about the arrangement of tessellating blocks into an orderly fashion to a thumping Russian electro-folk soundtrack [no, not even on a structural level] but rather it has a persistence of vision, sound and unconscious engagement which lingered well beyond the immediate experience of interaction. I say this as someone who consistently plays the Tetris (averaging maybe 5 minutes a day) and as a consequence I consistently experience the Tetris Effect. Which is to say that in moments of daydreaming or slight boredom I tend to unwittingly visualise the organisation of falling blocks. It’s not hallucinatory, nor disarming, it’s just handy half-conscious alarm bell for when something is starting to push my patience. I’m told it’s just another mode of half-conscious problem solving, much akin to how I’ve had the very question of this blog-post rattling about in my head for the last 24 hours. On another level it’s like that agonisingly persistent ear-worm, that bloody tune you just can’t get out of your head. Only I get it with Tetris, and blocks.

Again the glib reading here is that ‘Tetris brushes on the edges of hallucination, therefore it is like Enter The Void’, but that’s not it either. The comparison is that both pose an indirect problem, and that you leave the experience picking it apart in the back of your thoughts. A strangely pertinent scientific study has revealed that playing Tetris can reduce the risk of flashbacks for those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, and while traumatic is to exaggerate the effect of Enter the Void, it does at least underscore my point that both are functioning on levels which your average film doesn’t even come close to. For that I absolutely love the film, even if it is a bit of a slog in its unfettered 2 hours and 40 minutes runtime.

Next case in point is Ben Affleck’s rather zippy heist movie The Town, which again is just like a videogame. More precisely it’s just like any heist mission you care to mention from the Grand Theft Auto series. The dynamic between the central characters, the structure of the heists, the getaway car-chases with the tension of desperately trying to out-run cop cars in a sprawling urban environment. Or more succinctly still, a number of conflicts building in scale towards a rather disastrous and seemingly impossible final conflict, punctuated by scenes of internal group conflict, and bookended by a number of dead-end shoot-outs. The parallels may seem cursory, but the connection had a real resonance that fails the usual description of being ‘like a videogame’.

Of course the whole GTA series is ridiculously indebted to any number of crime films that have come before it, so it’s easy to say it’s just another regurgitation of the previous generation’s heist dramas. But this isn’t just Michael Mann through yet another prism, as he deals in quite a separate package of subtexts and narrative drives. To define the ‘feel’ of a film is always a slippery task, but The Town is definitely in the same sphere as GTA. To take the general barbs of criticism used in describing a film as being ‘like a videogame’ it didn’t feel or look like a cut-scene, and the narrative wasn’t subjugated to the Crash-Bang-Whollop of its action sequences. Perhaps on a simple level it comes down to the film being action-based and set in the working class ‘burbs of the US East Coast.

To take the very same barbed club, a film which lives up to the criticisms of shallowness and general thick-headedness is the recent Resident Evil: Afterlife, which to it’s credit makes no apology for this, revelling merrily as it does in the use of some clever 3D. There is no plot, there is next to no drama for the actors to engage with, and even the action sequences don’t make much sense in the grander scheme of things. Which is not to say that the film isn’t shamelessly entertaining.

The complication then comes in that Resident Evil is still a work of adaptation, drawn from a recognised series of videogames, and by said measure is not really like the original videogames at all. It’s not a jittery-nerve journey of nigh abject terror, but a clumping great action film built on the husk of an otherwise brilliant game franchise. The brilliance of the games is not defined by a lack of plot or by godawful acting, but rather on running around a haunted house with only six bullets in the clip and two points to save your game. This doesn’t stop critics judging it in terms derivative of a videogame, but it would be just as false to judge the novelistic aspects of Blade Runner on the back of its own source material in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The abstraction is so distant that the moniker ‘like a videogame’ becomes too hollow to actually bear any significance, and it’s quite tiring having to defend a medium on the back of such a distant (and slightly inbred) cousin.

The interrogation behind describing a film as novel-like is however a bit more rigorous, and a formalist approach can provide genuine insight to how loyal the structure of a film adaptation is. Arch-Formalist David Bordwell does a very fine job of breaking down both The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Polanski’s The Ghost in terms of pacing, and how the four-act structure of each reflects the conventional pace each holds as page-turning thrillers. Yet transpose this thinking to discussing a videogame and it’s rare that discussions ever go beyond the usual sheen of what we see on screen.

Case in point, the wonderfully enjoyable Scott Pilgrim vs The World is (over)saturated in referents from the world of videogames, and even jumps through a few hoops of the save-die-reload logic that gamers know so well. Less discussed is its function as an adaptation, and author Bryan Lee O’Malley has said the books (and consequently the film) owe a considerable debt to the structure of shōnen manga; the comics of action and romance aimed at teenage boys, filled with love rivals, fights and ongoing grudges. Not to get stuck in the trap of pursuing ever more obscure frames of reference for it’s own sake, but describing Scott Pilgrim as being broken down into ‘stages’ or ‘levels’ has perhaps less to do with Super Mario and more to do with Naruto and Death Note. But enough with the increasingly oblique references, the point is still that you shouldn’t just settle with the first referent that comes tumbling along.

Gaming as a whole is defined by its diversity of output, and when the glibbest of critics use ‘video game-y’ as shorthand for films being plotless and CGI laden they’re really just flagging up their own ignorance. I’m not denying that gamers have to endure a lot of narrative-scant talking-mannequin dramas, just for pities sake don’t use that definition as the measure by which to critique other media.

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A Swedish Crime Overlooked

No two ways about it, the new film adaptation of The Girl Who Played with Fire is unequivocally awful. Compared to the first, quite lean and brisk adaptation, the sequel is just one big fat raspberry of a film, full of Bond villains, gratuitous punch-ups, flat car chases, and lacking the hard-nosed sleuthing which was the driving force behind the original. I would recommend some other Swedish crime thrillers; the fruits of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Inspector Beck, as well as the new film Snabba Cash (Easy Money), were the titles available with English subtitles. But they aren’t, and it seems like some rights holders are really missing a trick not capitalising on this surging, possibly fleeting interest in such a narrow market.  

It’s possibly because this vogue in Swedish crime is seen with certain deference by the Swedes themselves, many of whom don’t get what all this international  fuss is about. Moving back to the UK to start university seven years ago I found it baffling that my tutors would ask keenly if I was a fan of a genre I didn’t readily disassociate from the worn out formula of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Inspector Morse isn’t a national treasure, so why the hell would you think that Kurt Wallander is?  

By this measure Swedish critics easily dismissed The Girl Who Played with Fire, as well as the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and their origin as a TV-movie was the stick they roundly beat them with. By contrast the anglophone critics were falling over themselves to heap praise on Dragon Tattoo, which in turn raised the hackles of Swedish critics, despairing at their peer’s inability to call out a trashy TV-movie when they saw one. The anglophone take on the sequel is only slowly starting to trickle in, and with opinion slightly more divided this time around, yet there are still critics who seem proud to champion the film in spite of it being an absolute dogs-dinner.  

The forces behind such a discreet polarisation can be summarised through one count of cultural cringe on the side of the Swedish (automatically dismissing anything home-grown) and a slight sheen cultural voyeurism for non-domestic viewers (the cagey exoticism of revelling in the grotty underside of the Swedish Social model). Even more broadly the polarisation boils down to a simple case of over-familiarisation versus relative ignorance, as Sweden is utterly saturated with the products of its own crime fiction, which is only just starting to trickle out to the English speaking world. To say that crime as a genre is ubiquitous in Sweden barely even covers the half of it, and while the majority of it is little beyond the Sunday night Midsummer Murder repeats, there are a few indigenous gems which are still refusing to find a market outside Sweden.  

The obvious first port of call is Henning Mankell’s tales of southern Sweden’s finest Insp. K Wallander, yet the existence and continuing success of the BAFTA award-winning  Anglophone adaptation rather negates the need for me to rake over matters any further. That the BBC adaptation was so popular that it even warranted repeat showings of the original language series on BBC4 is rather a big deal in my book. No Swedish TV series has ever had an airing on UK networks in my lifetime, and while I daren’t guess what the viewing figures were, it still sets a precedent that licensing-wise it can be done, and there might even be a market for it.  

Second in line would be Wallander’s literary predecessor, the well-spring of Swedish crime ubiquity: Insp. Martin Beck. He’s the obvious candidate for ‘readers who bought Wallander also bought…’ with the original ten books by the writing duo Sjöwall & Wahlöö gaining a tremendous foreign readership on the coattails of Wallander. Of the whopping thirty eight films that have come from the Martin Beck character, all but one failed to find a market outside the usual distribution outlets of Scandinavia + Germany. And rightly so, as the majority are the absolute tripe, clogging up the schedules and video store shelves across Sweden with the scowling face of actor Peter Haber. Seventeen of these twenty six modern adaptations have English subtitles, but for pity’s sake don’t look them up.  

The second actor to carry the mantle of Martin Beck is the rather unassuming Gösta Ekman, and his time at the crease is of far greater note, even if many Swedes are quick to roll their eyes at Just-Another-Beck. Ekman’s native profile is coloured by his long association with national comedic champions Hasse & Tage, and his not so serious demeanour brings a brevity which serves the otherwise portentous Beck well.* The six films with Ekman are solid TV-films, a bit dated since the early 90s, but all maintaining a tight knot of tension that keep them skimming along. The position of Beck always holding out against the solution of least resistance make him a likeable character, the obstinate thorn in the establishment’s side, always insisting on digging deeper however much dirt gets thrown up in the process. Where modern adaptations of Wallander seem to gleefully wallow at the never-ending weight of angst Kurt faces just getting out of bed every day, Ekman/Beck is a relative breath of fresh, if 20 year old air. If you had any choice in the matter I’d recommend Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy) or Polismördaren (Cop Killer), but neither are available with non-Scandinavian subtitles. The rights holders would do well to pull them all from wire-baskets of Sweden’s petrol stations, translate the lot, and export them in a cheap box-set. Money for some very fine old rope, in my opinion.  

Better still they could just cut straight to the outstanding classic crime flick, the one Beck film which did break internationally: Mannen På Taket (The Man on the Roof). Crudely pitched as the Swedish French Connection, Bo Widerberg’s 70s thriller is on paper just-another-Beck film, with a grisly murder of token Bourgeois arsehole, followed by an hours sidetracked investigation, ending in a dramatic confrontation in the final 10-20 minutes. The difference here is the execution, and the sheer brilliance of the film in capturing the inane domesticity the police are constantly disrupting in their investigations. Another comedian assumes the role of Beck, and the older Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt underplays an already understated character brilliantly. As the frustrations of the inquiry slowly starts to unravel in Beck’s hands, the revelation leads to an absolutely dizzying shoot-out finale with a district of central Stockholm held hostage by a crazed gun-man located, unsurprisingly, on a roof.  

At first glance the Swedish French Connection moniker is warranted, but an outsider’s approach shouldn’t be hamstrung by this, as Man on the Roof is anything but derivative. Friedkin’s gritty, almost observational perspective of New York finds an uncanny twin in Stockholm, the pale light of the autumnal city presenting a washed out pallette that’s visually striking without getting too wound up in that great Nordic angst Branagh/Wallander loves to fetishise. The budget was large for the Swedish film industry at SEK 3.9 million, but at the exchange rate of the time that still only comes to ~$780,000, a drop in the ocean compared to the French Connection‘s $1.8 million. The Man on the Roof doesn’t have the bombast, or the car chases of its American twin, but it still works brilliantly within its constraints. There is action, a few stunts and one eye-opening explosion, but at no point does the film ever look or feel cheap.  

By the same measure I would argue that’s the dividing line between Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire, as one works deftly within its restrains, while the other is too busy pretending to be a Michael Mann film on a beggars budget. Not to say that Swedish film should ‘know its place’ but that a film that works within its financial limitations is going to sell a lot better than a half-arsed imitation. The Swedish DVD release of The Man on the Roof idiotically doesn’t list that it has English subtitles, even when it does have them. It’s really worth a look, and is more than due a revival in the wake of Swedish crime fiction’s current popularity.  

Finally a word to a contemporary Swedish crime film that hasn’t a jot to do with Stieg Larsson; Snabba Cash (Easy Money). Based on the successful novel by Jens Lapidus, the recently released film adaptation manages to make something of the contemporary, yet but my measure cringingly leaden original novel. At it’s heart the source material follows an unlikely trio of criminal compatriots, a Chilean immigrant, a Serbian immigrant, and blonde blue-eyed social interloper in Stockholm’s financial elite. A wholesale cocaine deal, and an elaborate money laundering scheme unite the three, all struggling with falling deeper down the hole of criminality, desperately trying to maintain the façade of day to day life.  

  

The original novel made a big hoopla of being an expose of Stockholm’s underworld, but coming from the pen of high-flying society lawyer assuming the voice of two ethnic minorities, the whole thing rang thoroughly hollow to me. Think Jeffrey Archer assuming Jamaican patois for a crime novel set in Brixton and you get some idea of my apprehension of it’s ‘ripped from the streets’ credentials. In the adaptation to the big screen a lot of this assumed bravado has been dropped, the narrative trimmed down, and an aesthetic found which doesn’t protest about its veracity like the novel. Even the casting is spot on, and miraculously for a Swedish crime drama, Snabba Cash doesn’t feature one of the litany of national character actors which are forever being recycled in the genre. Fresh faces in a tired genre is quite an achievement.  

Despite being on the very cusp of the zeitgeist, and for my money a worthy alternative to Played with Fire, Snabba Cash is out on DVD in Sweden, but still lingering without a UK distributor. The Americans have been quicker off the mark, with Weinsteins snatching up the film for US distribution. Of course more important for Hollywood are the remake rights to the next-up-and-coming-Swedish-film, and in a twist more baffling than any I’ve seen in the aforementioned crime films, Zac Efron (yes he of High School Musical) has bought the rights and is looking to produce the film with himself in the lead. The Swedish original will no doubt be kept from anglophone market until Efron’s new found pet project can be put into production, and more’s the shame. It’s all fine and well for foreign film fans to sit around speculating on how much better the originals of Let The Right One In and Dragon Tattoo are compared to the soon to be released anglophone remakes, but Hollywood is obviously canny to the fact that it’s much easier to just buy the distribution rights and deprive the foreign-friendly acolytes from that argument in the first place. Burying a decent film to save Zac ‘trying-to-prove-he’s-a-grown-up’ Efron’s blushes is pretty rotten in my book, but it just goes to show that Swedish rights holders are still oblivious to the value of what they have in their hands.  

* [of note here is that the Hasse of Hasse & Tage is Hans Alfredsson, father of directors Tomas and Daniel Alfredsson of Let the Right One In and Played with Fire respectively. Yes, the Swedish film industry really isn’t that big.]  

hate to be one in a minority of Anglophones to say this, but the new film adaptation of The Girl Who Played with Fire is unequivocally awful. Compared to the first, quite lean and brisk adaptation, the sequel is just one big fat raspberry of a film, full of Bond villains, gratuitous punch-ups, flat car chases, and lacking the hard-nosed sleuthing which was the driving force behind the original. I would recommend some other Swedish crime thrillers; the fruits of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Inspector Beck, as well as the new film Snabba Cash (Fast Money), were the titles available with English subtitles. But they aren’t, and it seems like some rights holders are really missing a trick not capitalising on this surging, possibly fleeting interest in such a narrow market.  

It’s possibly because this vogue in Swedish crime is seen with certain deference by the Swedes themselves, many of whom don’t get what all this international fuss is about. Moving back to the UK to start university seven years ago I found it baffling that my tutors would ask keenly if I was a fan of a genre I didn’t readily disassociate from the worn out formula of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Inspector Morse isn’t a national treasure, so why the hell would you think that Kurt Wallander is?  

Accordingly Swedish critics absolutely panned Played with Fire, as well as the Dragon Tattoo, and the films origins as a TV-movie was the stick they roundly beat them with. By contrast the Anglophone critics were falling over themselves to heap praise on Dragon Tattoo, which in turn raised the hackles of Swedish critics, despairing at their peer’s inability to call out a trashy TV-movie when they saw one. The Anglophone take on the sequel is only slowly starting to trickle in, and with opinion slightly more divided this time around, there are still critics who seem proud to champion this film in spite of it being an absolute dogs-dinner.  

The forces behind such a discreet polarisation can be summarised through one count of cultural cringe on the side of the Swedish (automatically dismissing anything home-grown) and a slight sheen cultural voyeurism for non-domestic viewers (the cagey exoticism of revelling in the grotty underside of the Swedish Social model). Even more broadly the polarisation boils down to a simple case of over-familiarisation versus relative ignorance, as Sweden is utterly saturated with the products of its own crime fiction, which is only just starting to trickle out to the English speaking world. To say that crime as a genre is ubiquitous in Sweden barely even covers the half of it, and while the majority of it is little beyond the Sunday night Midsummer Murder repeats, there are a few indigenous gems which are still refusing to find a market outside Sweden.  

The obvious first port of call is Henning Mankell’s tales of southern Sweden’s finest Insp. K Wallander, yet the existence and continuing success of the BAFTA award-winning Anglophone adaptation rather negates the need for me to rake over matters any further. That the BBC adaptation was so popular that it even warranted repeat showings of the original language series on BBC4 is rather a big deal in my book. No Swedish TV series has ever had an airing on UK networks in my lifetime, and while I daren’t guess what the viewing figures were, it still sets a precedent that licensing-wise it can be done, and there might even be a market for it.  

Second in line would be Wallander’s literary predecessor, the well-spring of Swedish crime ubiquity: inspector Martin Beck. He’s the obvious candidate for ‘readers who bought Wallander also bought…’ with the original ten books by the writing duo Sjöwall & Wahlöö gaining a tremendous foreign readership on the coattails of Wallander. Of the whopping thirty eight films that have come from the Martin Beck character, all but one failed to find a market outside the usual distribution outlets of Scandinavia + Germany. And rightly so, as the majority are the absolute tripe, clogging up the schedules and video store shelves across Sweden with the scowling face of actor Peter Haber. Seventeen of these twenty six modern adaptations have English subtitles, but for pity’s sake don’t look them up.  

The second actor to carry the mantle of Martin Beck is the rather unassuming Gösta Ekman, and his time at the crease is of far greater note, even if many Swedes are quick to roll their eyes at Just-Another-Beck. Ekman’s native profile is coloured by his long association with national comedic champions Hasse & Tage, and his not so serious demeanour brings a brevity which serves the otherwise portentous Beck well.* The six films with Ekman are solid TV-films, a bit dated since the early 90s, but all maintaining a tight knot of tension that keep them skimming along. The position of Beck always holding out against the solution of least resistance make him a likeable character, the obstinate thorn in the establishment’s side, always insisting on digging deeper however much dirt gets thrown up in the process. Where modern adaptations of Wallander seem to gleefully wallow at the never-ending weight of angst Kurt faces just getting out of bed every day, Ekman/Beck is a relative breath of fresh, if 20 year old air. If you had any choice in the matter I’d recommend Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy) or Polismördaren (Cop Killer), but neither are available with non-Scandinavian subtitles. The rights holders would do well to pull them all from wire-baskets of Sweden’s petrol stations, translate the lot, and export them in a cheap box-set. Money for some very fine old rope, in my opinion.  

Better still they could just cut straight to the outstanding classic crime flick, the one Beck film which did break internationally: The Man on the Roof. Crudely billed as the Swedish French Connection, Bo Widerberg’s 70s thriller is on paper just-another-Beck film, with a grisly murder of token Bourgeois arsehole, followed by an hours sidetracked investigation, followed by a climatic confrontation in the final 10-20 minutes. The difference here is the execution, and the sheer brilliance of the film in capturing the inane domesticity the police are constantly disrupting in their investigations. The frustrations of all their inquiry slowly starts to unravel at Beck’s hands, and the revelation leads to an absolutely dizzying shoot-out finale with a district of central Stockholm held hostage by a crazed gun-man located, unsurprisingly, on a roof.  

At first glance the Swedish French Connection moniker is warranted, but an outsider’s approach shouldn’t be hamstrung by this, as Man on the Roof is anything but derivative. Friedkin’s gritty, almost observational perspective of New York finds an uncanny twin in Stockholm, the pale light of the autumnal city presenting a washed out pallette that’s visually striking without getting too wound up in that great Nordic angst Brannagh/Wallander loves to fetishise. The budget was large for the Swedish film industry at SEK 3.9 million, but at the exchange rate of the time that still only comes to ~$780,000, a drop in the ocean compared to the French Connection’s $1.8 million. The Man on the Roof doesn’t have the bombast, or the car chases of its American twin, but it still works brilliantly within its constraints. There is action, a few stunts and one eye-opening explosion, but at no point does the film ever look or feel cheap.  

By the same measure I would argue that’s the dividing line between Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire, as one works deftly within its restrains, while the other is too busy pretending to be a Michael Mann film on a beggars budget. Not to say that Swedish film should ‘know its place’ but that a film that works within its financial limitations is going to sell a lot better than a half-arsed imitation. While The Man on the Roof DVD doesn’t have English subtitles, there are fan translations out there. It’s really worth a look, and is more than due a revival in wake of Swedish crime fiction’s current popularity.  

Finally a word to a contemporary Swedish crime film that hasn’t a jot to do with Stieg Larsson; Snabba Cash (Fast Money). Based on the successful novel by Jens Lapidus, the recently released film adaptation manages to make something of the contemporary yet but my measure cringingly leaden source material. Focused on an unlikely trio of criminal compatriots, a Chilean immigrant, a Serbian immigrant, and blonde blue-eyed social interloper in Stockholm’s financial elite. A wholesale cocaine deal, and an elaborate money laundering scheme unite the three, all struggling with falling deeper down the hole of criminality, while maintaining the façade of day to day life. The original novel made a big hoopla of being an expose of Stockholm’s underworld, but coming from the pen of high-flying society lawyer assuming the dialect of two prominent ethnic minorities range thoroughly hollow to this reader. Think Jeffrey Archer assuming Jamaican patois for a crime novel set in Brixton and you get some idea of my apprehension to the tales ‘ripped from the streets’ credentials.  

In the adaptation to film a lot of this assumed bravado has been dropped, the narrative trimmed down, and an aesthetic found which doesn’t protest about its veracity like the novel. Even the casting is spot on, and miraculously for a Swedish crime drama, Snabba Cash doesn’t feature one of the litany of national character actors which are forever being recycled in the genre. Fresh faces in a tired genre is quite an achievement.  

Despite being on the very cusp of the zeitgeist, and for my money a worthy alternative to Played with Fire, Snabba Cash is out on DVD in Sweden, but still lingering without a UK distributor. The Americans have been quicker off the mark, with Weinsteins snatching up the film for US distribution. Of course more important for Hollywood are the remake rights to the next-up-and-coming-Swedish-film, and in a twist more baffling than any I’ve seen in the aforementioned crime films, Zac Efron (yes he of High School Musical) has bought the rights and is looking to produce the film with himself in the lead. The Swedish original will no doubt be kept from Anglophone markets until Efron’s new found pet project can be put into production, and more’s the shame. It’s all fine and well for foreign film fans to sit around speculating on how much better the originals of Let The Right One In and Dragon Tattoo are compared to the soon to be released anglophone remakes, but Hollywood is obviously canny to the fact that it’s much easier to just buy the distribution rights and deprive the foreign-friendly acolytes from that argument in the first place. Burying a decent film to save Zac ‘trying-to-prove-he’s-a-grown-up’ Efron’s blushes is pretty rotten in my book, but just goes to show that Swedish rights holders still seem oblivious to the value of what they have.  

* [of note here is that the Hasse of Hasse & Tage is Hans Alfredsson, father of directors Tomas and Daniel Alfredsson of Let the Right One In and Played with Fire respectively. Yes, the Swedish film industry really isn’t that big.]  

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Rich’s Pickings and the wry double bill

First things first, if you haven’t seen Rich Hall’s ‘Dirty South’ then stop reading now, and go watch it. You have until 3:14am on Sunday 25th July 2010 to catch it on iPlayer, you’d be a mug to miss it.

Why? Because it’s a brilliant personal  treatise on cinema, a very particular strand of cinema close to stand-up comedian Rich Hall’s heart. As a proud Son of the South he’s more than a little fed up with the generalisations the region has suffered under the lens of Hollywood, and is tired of having to rebut himself against a stereotype which isn’t half as clean cut as would first appear. Did you know it actually rains in the South?

And it’s true, the notion of the South is almost wholly coloured by the films he cites, and the literature behind it. That and the ‘I SAY, I SAY’ of Tex Avery’s Foghorn Leghorn, but maybe that’s just me. Anyone who has any kind of spiritual connection to a city or a region will be all too familiar of having to kick against the clichés entrenched by popular media through the ages. And I say this as a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Swede sitting in a grey and miserable Sheffield in July. Things are a bit more complicated than how they first appear, are we clear on that?

There really is some unbound pleasure in just seeing someone knowledgeable and witty just riffing on some really great films, and the pillars of literature they are drawn from. Informative AND funny is a big ask, but Rich Hall brings a degree of irreverence and sincerity to carry it all off.

Heartfelt personal paeans to cinema are nothing new, and I’ve sat through a fair few looking for guidance on what should be sought out, and what should be avoided. The rather explicitly titled, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, is a fine example but for all the anecdotes and personal outpouring it’s still a little stilted, and perhaps too grand in its scope. Scorsese whips through the hundreds of films he touches on, but to criticise, it does exactly what the rambling title promises. Personal to the point of autobiography, and anathema for film fans not falling over Ol’ Marty in the first place.

To indulge on the heady fumes of nostalgia, what I really long for is the good old days of Alex Cox and his short, sharp and to the point Videodrome introductions. A curated series of films, introduced at nigh-god-forsaken hours, with a pinch of cool reservation and a pinch of insight. It’s as true then as it still is now, for the channels are awash with more films that you could shake a PVR at, and there’s great value in just having someone go ‘Oi, watch this, it’s good. Why? Because I said so.’

Rich Hall ultimately has come to serve this function, as two films mentioned in the documentary found a slot later on BBC4 on the same evening, namely God’s Little Acre and In the Heat of the Night. A repeat of another Hall documentary this week, How the West Was Lost, was also accompanied by a screening of John Ford’s Fort Apache. Unfortunately neither the doc nor the film is on iplayer, but the marriage of insight and relevant film should really be encouraged.

Much hoopla was made when the BBC announced that Claudia Winkleman was to take over the vaunted Film 20XX reviewers chair, the sceptics howls being hushed by the corporation’s desire to get away from the ‘old man in a chair’ approach to film reviewing. Some further hoopla was made by David Puttnam, when he criticised television producers for not capitalising on the growing hunger and interest for film that is being demonstrated at UK box offices.

It’s hardly rocket science to see a simple equation where you take the likes of enthusiastic profiles (Rich Hall, Mark Kermode, Alex Cox, a woman perhaps? Channel 4 news’ Samira Ahmed tweets and writes enthusiastically about her love of westerns. Someone give her a call) to either spend five minutes hyping an overlooked gem they love, or even perhaps going on a further exploration of some the bigger tropes in cinema. Charlie Brooker’s gotten good mileage tapping Stewart Lee and the like to reminisce about old televisual treasures for Screenwipe, would it be so hard to extend this into the realm of film?

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Charting Empire’s 50 Worst Films

Love them or hate them, list making is the back bone of pretty much any entertainment magazine you care to mention, and many a nerdy pub discussion beside. It fills dead space, it kills time, and as the pastime of idle till jockeys has been pretty accurately been lampooned by High Fidelity.

But while geeks can rail each other with the ridiculous subjectivity of their own list of picadillos, the grander readershi- wide polls conducted by publications of size, if not repute, always makes for a worthwhile perusal. Britain’s own colossus of cinema, Empire magazine chose to recently query their readership about what they consider the worst films of all time. While the list doesn’t throw up any shocking revelations (The Room! Battlefield Earth! Batman and Robin!) the fact that a wedge of all the films charted scored three stars out of five, with another slice taking two starts in the very same magazine begs a few questions. The fact that every entry is bookended with a stinker of a quote from other critics as to just how bad the film really is, makes you wonder if Empire has an iota of self awareness about what they’re doing. Maybe a bit of analysis and a pie chart of the worst films’ collected scores could help:

A few of the three star reviews fall in the definite category of stark personal/cult/delusional favourites, with titles such as Howard the Duck, Southland Tales, Dreamcatcher and Heavens Gate making up their number. Widely panned commercial failures, these are films who have their ardent defenders, and Empire has the doggedly all knowing trash expert Kim Newman on staff to tackle the flood of direct-to-video films they get in every month. While Lindsey Lohan’s universally abhorred I Know Who Killed Me failed to get distribution in the UK, Newman was there to argue its corner when it came out on DVD. He’s a unique voice and greatly valued for it.

The other plethora of three stars fall into the dangerous category of the over inflated blockbuster sequel, and number the pitiful Spider-Man 3, Matrix Revolutions, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and the beyond pitiful Speed 2. A cynic might scoff at how easily a magazine got subsumed by hype, if not the questionable trading of favourable scores for big name exclusives. While the practice hasn’t been widely covered in film PR, the dastardly deeds of gaming’s PR folk has been better covered by more vocal critics than me, and it would be naïve to think it doesn’t go on behind the scenes at the big movie magazines/websites/review shows.

But then again doesn’t that just reflect Empire’s remit for espousing the undying fan’s idoltry for all things big brash and Hollywood, where the packaging and the hype are enjoyed just as much as the film itself? As a lad I got absolutely wrapped up in all things Jurassic Park before its release, bought all the special edition magazines I could get hold of and read them to rags. Spoilers be damned, I wanted beyond full disclosure before I went in. During the film I still managed to have the living daylights knocked out of me, but coming out of it I was none the less disappointed that there were no Baryonyx in the film, as that had been on the map in the Official Souvenir Studio-Authorized Magazine that I’d read so closely. Yes, that’s exactly how much of a geek I was.

Thankfully Jurassic Park is, was, always will be a superb film, but when a bit older and wiser I could appreciate the Matrix Revolutions for the absolute travesty it is. It took me the whole of Matrix Reloaded to learn the bitter lesson of hype vs reality to appreciate that. Roll around Spider-Man 3 and I knew better than to go and see it sober. So it goes.

To be generous to the films and the magazine you have to take these films with a degree disbelief suspended, and for a lot of the featured films the experience can be a lot more enjoyable if you just go with the hype. I already take Empire’s scores with a hefty dose of salt, but I guess it’s a small comfort to know that I’m far from the only reader who is able to, if only occasionally, pull back and challenge the hyperbole machine. If only the reviews were a little less by committee and a little more individual then we could just take them and debate them as the subjective reflections they are.

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Doc/Fest – The Living Room of the Nation + Bob

It’s Doc(umenatary)Fest(ival) time in Sheffield again! My relationship with the festival has been patchy over the years, not through any acrimony but purely through my continued ability to be out of town when it’s on. But not this year! Having harangued my way to a pass I shall attempt some madcap, whistlestop overviews of the films I do manage to catch.

This will be pretty roughshod stuff, an experiment in the regurgitated opinions that festival coverage demands. The mainstream press were forced to sit through Inglourious Basterds at 08:00 in the morning in Cannes, and most only given until lunchtime to send their copy back. In circumstances such as those it’s not too surprising that Tarantino’s brash revisioning of World War 2 failed to win the old duffers over. But what happens when you apply the same ‘fresh-out-of-the-screening’ logic to a lovingly nutured independent documentary film? There’s only one way to find out:

DocFest The Living Room of the Nation

The Living Room of the Nation

Anything that claims to be ‘of the nation’ is bound to be setting itself up for a fall, swiped away by the broad brush strokes that any such overview might entail. Yet ‘Living Room of the Nation’ manages a wonderous thing in taking any preconceived notions of ‘Finnishness’ that the viewer may carry with them into the film, and then merrily skimming along said cliché with glad abandon.

Following six individuals over an unclear timeframe, the camera work sets up an extremely simple perspective: widescreen, with the frame generally covering the length of the room. Taking the very definition of fly-on-the-wall and going with it lends the film an uncanny observational tone. The Finns in focus just sit around speaking their brains when on their own, or interacting with friends and family on a level of borderline absurdity that would put Beckett, Pinter and Roy Anderson to shame. The breaking of big news seems to frequently come as a minor distraction to the hockey that seems to be permanently playing on the tv in the corner of the room/frame.

The hero/lynch-pin of the film is the expectant father Tarko, who is in permanent conflict with his emotions and his responsibilities. Scaling the whole range of emotions in one man’s life, we see him cavorting with his best buddy at the news that he to become a father, but also bearing his soul to his infant son about his worries about his crumbling relationship to the mother. Inbetween come agonisingly stifled conversations with the grandfather to be, as well as numerous slapstick interludes as Tarko bumbles about in life in a way that feels all too familiar.

The moments of profound reflection from other characters, sitting in the dark, looking out of their living rooms, might feel a touch contrived to those unfamiliar with Finns beyond the stereotypes. For those who have ever had the pleasure of raising a glass with a Finn, these instances of seemingly bottomless insight will feel more than a familiar.

Bob

Docfest BobIntimacy is a difficult thing to capture on camera, but the short doc Bob does an amazing job of making you feel like you’re practically in Bob’s armpit. Partly because for a sizeable section of the film, you are literally in Bob’s armpit.

Bob is a 90 year old communist who also happens to be nudist. We follow him as he goes through his morning routine; extensive stretching, making an elaborate fruit breakfast, and a basic scrub-up before he goes out to tend to his small garden. All completely stark naked, of course.

The nudism becomes a point in and of itself, the sharp, narrow focus camera floating over the strange curves, sags, moles and lumps you would expect to find on a 90 year old man. It’s not just a map of the life he has lived, nor is it just a motif of mortality or human fallability. It’s a strange anchor, an underscoring of quite how happy Bob is with the life he has led.

So take it from Bob: stretch, eat your five a day, don’t worry, be (politically) active), live a long life.

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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 First Coming of Antichrist

charlotte gainsbourg in antichristThis is it. The eye of the media shit storm; after the cultural digestion from the liberal arts programmes and columns but still before the reviews start raining in the ‘official’ verdict. Lars von TriersAntichrist has been a fair while coming, but the great Dane has got the media machine humming to his tune, a maestro of stoking controversy, a grand master of publicity. To borrow the sacrosanct yet divine language befitting of the film I can say I’ve been blessed to see the film, and there is a lot to digest.

Firstly we need to establish some parameters to von Trier’s game, for those are the rules we have to play by.

Don’t ever take anything he says at face value. The hook he has given himself in the promotion of Antichrist is that he is ‘The Best Film Director in the World’ and countless hacks have taken the bait. Even if they all contextualise the statement and the humour in which it was said, the headline remains the same. Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times tries to put down von Trier by inventing his own word and denigrating that it as ‘pure undergraduatese.’ The fact that Appleyard continues to play this game on von Triers terms is proof if any that Trier’s declarations are anything but naïve.

A few critics have done a good job at calling von Trier out on this sport, and hats go off to the Guardian’s in-house film-hater-extraordinaire Peter Bradshaw for presciently speculating on the publicity value of von Trier announcing his depression over two years ago. That was the first word I heard of Antichrist, and it is wholly unquestionable that this is a film defined by a nigh chronic depression. It is bleak, unrelenting, and it spirals towards a hysterical ending. It remains firmly in the subjective of the female lead, struggling and failing to break out of a cycle of grief. As she is locked in depression so too is the viewer rooted, shackled to their seats throughout.

In its’ premise Antichrist is easily summarised, and its critics are quick to quip about its blunt symbolism. A husband and wife fall into deep mourning after the tragic death of their child. The ‘She’ is briefly hospitalised, physically debilitated by her loss, while the psychoanalyst ‘He’ carries his loss in a ‘typical’ manner. To tackle her ‘atypical’ mourning, the couple retreat to their isolated cabin, Eden, set deep in an overbearing almost monstrous forest. The husband is blindly convinced that he alone can give active and adequate therapeutic guidance to break his wife out of her depression. Despite promising signs early on, it all goes terribly wrong.

In its weakest guise this is a film about psychotherapy, and films shot from the therapists couch rarely grasp you by the eyeballs. Onscreen discussions on the value of medicated ignorance or the importance of exposure therapy clunk about in a heavy handed way, railroaded through the film by an increasingly insistent husband/therapist. Yet these doubts fade as the folly of this dominant approach slowly unravels, turning instead to a confrontation of cold rationalism against emotional hysteria. Put bluntly it turns into a straight up clash of the sexes.

This is hardly new territory to von Trier and his critics are all too quick to cite his major post-dogme films and the trail of ‘destroyed’ women he has left in his path. Dragging Nicole Kidman through misery on Dogville, driving Björk to eating her own jumper on Dancer in the Dark. While this rather glib trope of ‘dragging women through hell’ might be obvious in these later films, Antichrist draws its conflict from further back in von Trier’s past, harking back to his widely overlooked TV film adaptation of Euripides’ Medea.

A true archetype for the conflict and contrast of the hysterical wife against the coldly rational and distant husband, Medea casts the imbalance of the sexes at the heart of its conflict, and the tensions between the responsibilities of the mother (Medea) against the liberties of the father (Jason). It ends with Medea rejecting the shackles of her maternal role, killing her sons by Jason, and fantastically disappearing on a golden chariot driven by dragons. While von Trier’s Medea doesn’t end quite so fantastically, it keeps the bloody ending and the inner conflict of a woman uncomfortably vulnerable to a cheating husband she still loves remains as the films definitive dynamic.

This very anxiety carries over into Antichrist, driving a personal tragedy deeper into the realms of metaphysical and symbolic horror. Before the film has even been released across Europe discussions are already raging on the pages of the respectable press whether this film is misogynist or not. To boil it down as such is about as complex as speculating if the coin has landed heads or tails. Is the switch on, or off? Does von Trier hate women, or not? Such headbangingly simplistic debate is about the greatest injustice you can do the film, as it does away with the nuance of the personal and the broader issues that von Trier targets in Antichrist.

Chaos Reigns in Antichrist

Equally the excessive violence at the end of the film does not definitively flick this switch on or off. For the media to be endlessly scratching their heads over it is surely to miss the forest for all the trees? In terms of British exhibition this film is unequivocally a milestone in what can be shown on legitimate screens, and some media debate over the role of the BBFC, and what they think about Antichrist, is natural. Yet when it boils down to the usual claptrap of ‘but is it Art?’ and ‘What DOES it take for a film to get banned these days?’ you can’t but worry for the state of educated discussion of such matters. Yes it is shocking, wince worthy, enough to make any human genuinely uncomfortable. But this is just about underlining the horrors that the characters go through. When Oedipus claws his eyes out it isn’t to anti-titillate the audience, it is (arguably) to drum home the horrors he has just realised, to make physical the dramatic revelation of irony that has been building up throughout. This is the school of tragedy von Trier is dealing with. Physical mutilation: par for the course. Deal with it.

Or is it?

The devilish imp von Trier really cannot be trusted, and for all the interviews with director and cast consistently pointing to the sincerity of this production you can’t but wonder what ire he was hoping to stoke up with all of this. He has widely discussed the two edits he had made, the uncut Protestant version and the cut Catholic version, and with his canny producers’ hat on von Trier must have seen this coming. Undoubtedly, but for all of its most extreme moments Antichrist is none the less a tremendously challenging watch, and all the better for it.

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