Tag Archives: Plain Ol’ Drama

Staying in For A House of Cards

Beyond saying that it is just painfully good, how can I convince the undecided viewer that they really should make an effort to watch the new House of Cards? On its initial release last year the quality of the show came a hollow second to the sheer novelty of Netflix funding and debuting the show as a stream-only venture. The quality of the product itself was sold as a fortuitous matching of top film talent with unchallenged creative freedom, and a blank check from a new studio all to happy to spend. The whole exercise was of course underwritten by Netflix’s magical motion picture content algorithm/crystal-ball which showed that the Venn diagram of ‘Quality Drama’, ‘Kevin Spacey’, and ‘British Imports’ equals a surefire public and critical hit. Yet looking beyond the wild zeal of technology and entertainment reporters, and beyond the begrudging acknowledgement of TV critics, to approach the show itself a fresh is not the easiest proposition.


At first glance the sceptic might ask how I can so wholeheartedly recommend something so bitterly cold in every sense. In its visuals, in its emotional heart, or digging further down into its moral core, the whole package is an incredibly frosty sell to the first time buyer. But crack the show’s shell and you’re treated to an intricate drama that rewards your investment exponentially episode by episode. To dance artfully around describing it as a ‘grown-up’ series, (a detestable concept in its own right), what makes the show refreshing is perhaps how utterly unfrivolous it is. For all the clap-trappings, clichés, and cliff-hanger pomp of many other TV shows, the first season of House of Cards just took an assuredly good story and let it play out over the course of thirteen episodes. The greater arc of the show is drawn up to carry over into the second season, which debuts in its entirety on Netflix today, and the promise of another thirteen ‘chapters’ in a third scheduled season after that is a more than dizzying prospect in its own right.

That it’s a political drama set in the heart of the American executive may spook the more lackluster viewer, but again don’t let that put you off. As with all good political dramas or satires, the crux of the show is the viewer’s curiousity in the human and extremely petty world of personal politics which we normally only glimpse and through cracks in the noble and selfless veneer of public politics. From the flying expleitives of Malcom Tucker in The Thick of It, to the endless bumblings of Jim Hacker in Yes Minister, Kevin Spacey in the role of Congressman Frank Underwood outdoes them all as the shrewd and obscenely calculating politician who can manipulate every man, woman, or child to his every beck and call.


Kevin Spacey himself might rub you up the wrong way, and his gentle Foghorn-Leghorn Suuthern draawl might stick in the ear of someone who knows the accent, but just by the same measure he piles on the gentlemanly charm with a callous glint in his eye, the glint of a man with his eye on far higher prizes. The show’s central device of having Underwood constantly confiding with the audiences in secret yet candid asides stands out from the usual televisual convention and is thrilling as a device in its own right. The instant switch between cold public face and sarcastic and self-aggrandizing inner monologue plays right into our curiosity of wanting to know what politicians are really thinking and saying behind mask of their public face. Where the British original of the TV series saw the original Francis Underwood give nigh-on theatrical monologues straight to camera, Spacey’s approach is almost casual in comparison, addressing the viewer as confidant as opposed to spectator.


And what of the American remakes association to the much vaunted original BBC series? The passage of time makes it hard to compare the two superficially, but what the original does hold is a slightly sharper satirical edge, especially in light of its close proximity to the politics of the time. Yet where Ian Richardson acted as a lynchpin for the whole series, the strength of the newer version lies in the knockout strength of its ensemble cast. Beyond Frank Underwood, the superb counterpoint played by Robin Wright as Claire Underwood broadens the drama, and balances out the almost sociopathic tendencies of her husband, and together they form one of the most terrifying power couples ever seen on screen. Add to this a dynamite cast of characters that Frank has in his pocket, like Kate Mara as the intrepid reporter, and Corey Stoll as the troubled congressman for South Philadelphia, and the push and pull of the conspiracy makes for an absolutely brilliantly taunt drama. A cruel casting manager might very well list these characters as secondary, but in their performances they’re anything but, and Stoll and Mara to name but two, have already had me chasing down the prior filmographies of all involved to see where I can catch them. (Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight In Paris being the standout example in an otherwise flim-flam flop of a film.)

What else is there to knock? Well there’s some egregious product placement, limited to maybe three occasions as when Spacey’s obliged to ask about another Congressman’s son’s PS Vita (“Oh I say, is that a portable games console? What games has he got?”), but if you can survive those sixty seconds, I’m sure you’ll live to enjoy the rest of the show.

In the middle of an awards season bogged down with films masquerading as give-me-an-Oscar actor’s workshops, the audacious prospect of a well-written TV series delivered by an outstanding cast comes as an almost rare treat. This really is not-to-be-missed television, and through the miracle of modern technology it’s always there should it take you fancy.

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The Bridge is Not a Documentary

“Come quickly, it’s Stockholm on the telly” my Mum shouts. It’s a BBC World documentary with a brief segment on the place of migrants in the city. Happy fruit and flower sellers on Hötorget speak proudly of how integrated they are, how their children have been born and raised as Swedes, and how glad they are for the opportunities afforded to them. Then the bright summery colours of the market fade as the voice-over concedes that “Sweden also has a darker side, as reflected in the recent popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction”. A bearded white baby-boomer is rolled out to read an extract from his latest novel, something about a dead woman, maybe strangled, something about the smell of flowers. This man’s books have sold well internationally, why is that asks the interviewer. Oh because it flies in the face of this utopian vision everyone has of Sweden, the sad reality that in some senses the country has become a “lost paradise”. Not that it took such a colossally ill-judged reference to Milton to raise the hackles of my family, as even the mention of ‘that’ genre had eyes rolling and groans rumbling.

The voice-over reflects that “this is of course fiction” with the qualification that it still “tells us something about the state of Sweden today”. Quite how well this crime novel matches Ulysses in capturing a city in a moment of time I’ll never know, as both will remain unread (or at least unfinished) for the foreseeable future as I busy myself unearthing the state of European relations in the 1930s from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

A Sunny Day on the Bridge Season 2

This of course is not to begrudge the relentless success of these marauding Nordic writers and producers, but rather an appeal against the endless, countless, and generally quite pointless one-note readings of the region spun out by tireless features writers everywhere. Social commentary is certainly a kernel to the formula of Scandinavian crime fiction, but it is not the sole point of the genre as boldly stated by at least one British journo. Maybe I’m too wound up as a half-native, but what can the average viewer hope to learn from The Killing, The Bridge, or indeed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Yes, Malmö and København are surprisingly close to each other after the opening of the Öresunds bridge. Migrant integration is a serious issue, look only to the Husby riots in Stockholm last spring for that. Racism is on many levels endemic, and worryingly institutionalised, although thousands have taken to the streets against this. Women are broadly speaking more liberated, but that isn’t for a moment to say misogyny has been eradicated. Likewise folks are generally a bit more open about sex, or at least not crippled by embarrassment at the hint of the subject, but neither does that preclude increasing levels of sexual violence.

Spelling out these issues in such ludicrously broad terms is making me feel like an idiot for even mentioning them, which is perhaps why I’m getting a tad fed up with crime fiction being taken as the outsider’s one true conduit to the ‘dark underside’ of the Scandinavian social model. To the uninitiated there is no doubt much to see and learn from a drama set in a completely new culture, yet for all this novelty and exoticism I doubt many will be blinded the simple fact that The Bridge is not a documentary, but rather an incredibly well paced thriller with interesting and three dimensional characters.

winter on the Bridge Season 2

The new season, like the first, is packed with flourishes, twists and seemingly ceaseless turns as the Danish Martin Rohde and Swedish Saga Norén again team up to solve a new sprawling mystery. Their collaboration, and their poles-apart approach to personal interaction cuts through the whole of their investigation, and it is their mutual drive which keeps the viewer interested and up to speed with every step of the drama. Although there are more than a few cheap narrative tricks along the way (last minute SUDDEN CLIFFHANGER warnings abound), the show steps far enough away from the recognisable conventions of the emerging Scando-crime TV format to keep things interesting and unpredictable. Dissect or analyse the narrative for whatever social commentary you can find (and good luck with that in the new series), the real strength remains the characterisation of the show’s two leads, and the new series does plenty of digging into both their psyches and their past. The culmination of this latest series and its absolutely dizzying conclusion will have audiences howling for answers, in the best possible way.

While the second series kicks off with a double episode on BBC4 tonight, the bad news for the newcomer is that you really really REALLY have to start with the first series, as the first two minutes of the new series completely gives away the game of the latter. The good news is that the whole thing is readily available on UK Netflix right now, so there are no excuses not to get stuck in right this instance. Any object lessons in Scandinavian culture picked up from either series will be gladly received on the back of a postcard, questions likewise so.

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A Bridal Procession in Hardanger: Some Screening Notes

Included below are the screening notes I drew up for the benefit of the wonderful Bristol Silents, for a club screening of theirs earlier this year. Introducing the film I also went into a bit more detail about the Hardanger fiddle, which is interwoven into both the film and Norwegian folk culture more generally, and in my humble opinion is quite a spectacular instrument to hear. I love it. If you want a sample then check out a 15 minute BBC radio documentary in the Musical Migrants series on it. Or just go crazy on Youtube, as there’s plenty to be found!

A true classic of Norwegian cinema, Rasmus Breistein’s Bridal Procession in Hardanger (1926) is not only a high point of the nation’s body of silent film, but also stands as a vital piece in their visual and cultural history. Stunningly shot on location on the fjords of western Norway, the film recreates a rural idyll of 19th century Scandinavian life to tell a compelling melodrama of young love, marriage, class division, and the lure of emigration to brighter lands of new promise.

In many ways the film stands as the culmination of Norway’s artistic movement of National Romanticism, which sought to encapsulate a true reflection of the nation’s emergent identity. The original Bridal Procession in Hardanger is in fact a landscape painting by Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude, dating from 1848. A sharp and vivid panorama of a traditional bridal party crossing the Hardangerfjord, the oil painting is now widely regarded as one of Norwegian art history’s most important pictures. At the time of its creation Norway remained sub-ceded by its union to Sweden, and the art establishment in the country sought to galvanise what it meant to be Norwegian in all areas of culture. This perspective combined an over-arching reverence for Norwegian nature with a nostalgia for the country’s traditional dress, music and craft; qualities we can all see brought together in the original Bridal Procession of 1848.

The novella Marit Skjølte was also born out of this movement of romantic nationalism, and it stands as inspiration for the film we are to see tonight. Written by the priest Kristofer Janson in 1868, the story took inspiration from the painting of Bridal Procession, while also building on contemporary tensions around the draw to emigrate, which was pulling on many Norwegians at the time. The tale of a young generation tempted to leave poverty and social division for the opportunities of the New World is one that has been told many times, yet in Janson’s telling the issue is brought in sharp contrast against the art movement which sought to celebrate Norway culture. How could the case for Norway’s independent future be made if its young wanted nothing more than to escape on the first boat they could take to America?

In the drawing together of this novella, the visual look of Norway’s national romanticism, and the celebrated craft of its rediscovered folk-culture and music, we now find the film Bridal Procession in Hardanger. While Norway had found true independence from Sweden in 1905, the question of national identity still remained important, and a new generation of artists sought to re-engage with it. Tired with the continued success foreign filmmakers found in adapting Norwegian literature for the silver screen, established stage actor, and accomplished fiddle-player, Rasmus Breistein brought together Norway’s theatrical talent to stake their own claim in cinema. Up until this point filmmakers had failed to find much traction for a professional and independent film production in the still young nation, yet Breistein broke through with Fante-Anne (aka Gypsy Anna) in 1920. An adaptation of a rural melodrama, the film won high praise from the Norwegian press, with one critic heralding it as proof of film’s new status as an art-form in its own right.

Bridal Procession is Breistein’s fourth film, and by some reckoning his most accomplished. Having already found an audience for rural dramas, Breistein took to making Bridal Procession with a new found dedication to showing a very personal Norway, set as it is in region where he was born. Breistein saw the film as the perfect medium to portray his own Western Norwegian perspective on rural life, and the film is almost documentary in its observation of the Hardanger people and their customs. While the film stars a young Aase Bye, the rising diva of Norwegian stage and screen, the vista of the Hardangerfjord is practically a star in its own right, and Breistein readily acknowledged the towering beauty of “those wonderful Norwegian landscapes which nowadays people from all parts of the world flock here to see.”

The film was a tremendous hit on its premiere on Boxing Day 1926, and the success continued as the film went on a year-long tour of Norway. Breistein himself was also canny to the film’s international value, and since crowds of tourists now flocked to the fjords, why not take the fjords to the world? Much like the emigrants of the film, Breistein went to America despite not knowing a word of English, and the Bridal Procession and Fante-Anne went on a 200 show tour of the United States, where every screening was introduced with a lecture on Norway, and every performance accompanied by Breistein himself on traditional Hardanger fiddle. The tour was a hit, and while box-office takings were set aside for Breistein’s next production, the director also spent time in Hollywood studying new techniques and approaches to filmmaking. In this sense Breistein stands out from many other European filmmakers of the time: he went to Hollywood, not to join the dream factories of California, but rather to source the skills and the funds to start new film productions back in Norway. His career continued with uneven success into the early sound period, but through a series of popular and critically lauded documentaries in the forties and fifties, Breistein established him as one of the most important filmmakers of Norwegian cinema.

Finally a note on the version and the music which accompanies it: with only six copies printed on the film’s first release, the popularity of Bridal Procession saw the original copies worn ragged. The Norwegian Film Institute discovered an unedited copy of the film, lacking intertitles, in their collections in 1997. A copy of the intertitles were then traced to the Swedish Film Censors, and a reconstructed version was put together for the Pordenone silent film festival in 1999. This is the version we are seeing tonight, and it is accompanied by a superb orchestral soundtrack scored by Haldor Krogh, and performed by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Ole Kristian Ruud. Of particular note in this score are the segments which feature the beautiful Hardanger fiddle, a six-stringed violin-type instrument indigenous to the region. Easy to spot being played at various points in the story, the lilting and haunting tones of the fiddle rise out of the soundtrack and bring the film to life in a stirring and unique way.

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Showing at the Showroom: Never Let Me Go

Die-hard romantic? It’s a lovely notion, but one I’d be hard pushed to apply to many films. The infinitely personal applied on a dizzying and sweeping scale? It’s not something that jumps to the fore in your average with a ROM prefix. Maybe I just need to do some more dredging through the classics (who doesn’t), maybe I just need to open up a bit more (again, who doesn’t), but it’s not often I get unwittingly caught up in the emotional tumult of other-people-who-happen-to-be-fictional. Full credit to Never Let Me Go then for absolutely broadsiding me.

At it’s emotional core the tale is one of unrequited love, which against better judgement I’m an absolute sucker for. I guess it’s not that hot on the Hollywood slate of rote narrative structures, as you inevitably can’t avoid misery for at least one, if not all of the characters. This isn’t the bog-standard love triangle, with it’s obvious guilt and the promise of some kind cathartic ‘action’ but rather the agonising, needling pain of what doesn’t happen, or worse still, what almost happens. The witheringly handsome trio of Knightley/Mulligan/Garfield manage the heavy-duty thesping that’s demanded of them, going from the sweet childhood flutters of love, up to the uncertain impasse of young adulthood. It’s all too easy to be sniffy about these BrightNewActors™ especially Her of Piratey Fame, but they all come into their own bringing these strange characters to life.

The strangeness comes from the soft science fiction situation of the story, which manages to take the stark alienation of an alternate world and cast it into scenes of discomfort readily familiar to the universal teenager. To take a separate (but well worth reading) parallel from Charles Burn’s comic Black Hole, the fantastical elements act as an obvious metaphor for the frustrations and confusion of being an average hormone-addled teenager. But obviously there’s more to it than that. It’s almost misleading to describe the film as science-fiction as it’s almost tertiary to the human drama. To exaggerate a tenant of good sci-fi, it’s greater empathy found in the alienation of circumstance. Romance has to build itself up on the bedrock of empathy, and heaven knows you have enough of that when you come around to the emotional crunch of this film.

Perhaps it’s because my teachers plied me with Petrarch at a dangerously hormonal age. Maybe I got dangerously empathetic to the story as I took a shining to Andrew Garfield’s wardrobe (it’s very nice in a futuro-rustic way), but it’s really the actors who bring the goods to what is a really superb story. More than a passing infatuation I like to think, but I can’t wait to see it again.

Five out of Five

Never Let Me Go is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 11th of February 2011.

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Showing at the Showroom: Blue Valentine

It’s perhaps unjust to damn a film for not exceeding expectations, for just being quite good and not a lot else, but Blue Valentine hits a strange middle ground. It comes at the height of the awards season, and standing alongside other expectant contenders it’s been pinned down as the ‘actors film’. A hard hitting relationship drama, with Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling doing some real emotional heavy-lifting, being brave and going where few other actors dare. And they do, and brilliantly so. But that’s about it.

The crux of the story is a splintered and disjointed tale, following the slow coming together of the unexpectant young parents Dean and Cindy. At the start they’re the very model of a dysfunction, a bouncing young five year old daughter delighting the man-child Dean, the burden of being a grown-up wearing thin on Cindy. The live in a big house, surrounded by beautiful long grass which the morning sun catches nicely. The camera likes staying tight on their faces, the many splinters between the couple writ-large on their every darting glance.

Having left the little Frankie with the gruff grandfather, Dean corrals Cindy into taking up a boozy weekend at a saucy novelty motel, to ‘rediscover that spark’ and find the woman he first fell in love with. A nasty passive-aggressive car drive later and the film takes off on an unclear flight towards rediscovering that love from it’s first instance. Unfulfilled prior relationships come and go, and unlikely re/encounters lead towards a beautifully smoldering kindling of love.

From the grating petulance of his older self earlier in the film Gosling goes into an unremitting charm offensive to win over the coy and reluctant Williams, and effortlessly woos the audience along with her. Having a front seat to an almost bottomless falling in love is a warm and fine thing indeed, and in spite of skirting dangerously close to a mobile phone advert [warm colours, du jour indie soundtrack, a stubbly stud wooing a round cheeked girl with A BLOODY UKELELE] of course you get carried along with it.

All the better having then reached the carefree heights of a love unbounded to the pull the chord towards a spiraling tail-spin of bleakness when the realities and hardships of life get, well, very REAL. Which is when the award-winning performances come to the fore, with the daring and brave sex scenes, the raw-like-onions emotional tussling and rending of hearts and wills. The performances are tremendous, make no mistake, and in their strongest (often drunken) moments the film brings to mind the fraught feelings and jangling genuine anger/love of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Yet despite its’ best efforts, Blue Valentine just hasn’t quite got the same painful edge.

To say it almost feels engineered to bait American critics is to paint the film as cynical. Which it isn’t, but by dint of it’s approach it manages to tick a slew of awards worthy boxes. Which isn’t to say it’s pedestrian either. It’s gripping, involving and tremendous in it’s way, but having long left the cinema the film just hasn’t stuck with me beyond the moment itself.

In isolation the constituent parts of the film: the acting, the cinematography, the soundtrack, are all superb and more than worthy of all the prizes and plaudits you care to heap on it. It’s just by some unholy logic that the sum of said parts don’t quite match that same standard.

Three out of Five

Blue Valentine is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 14th of January 2011.

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Showing at the Showroom: The King’s Speech

Perhaps wary of stick-waving, royalist-poking republicans everywhere, The King’s Speech is almost a little desperate to win over any audience that comes across it. You WILL get behind the unproven hero, and whatever your allegiance, lords knows you WILL be rooting for him come the final act. In the simplest terms the film is Rocky recast in a royal mould, with all the pent-up British decorum that might suggest. It’s thoroughly enjoyable for it too.

The underdog is the unassuming Albert, Prince of York (Colin Firth), and the film is his path to succeeding the Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) and becoming the Reluctant King George VI. His struggle is with himself, battling a debilitating stutter which neuters him in the one demand of a royal, that of the public speaker. He was never meant to be a contender, swiftly consigned to the sidelines from birth, the knock-kneed, tongue-tied younger brother had steeled himself for a life outside the spotlight. Not that occasion didn’t demand of him to speak publicly, and the opening scene of the film sees Albert failing to address both an attendant Wembley stadium, and a nation of listeners on the wireless. Ushered in by the King’s finest English, a waiting nation is left hanging in silence, Albert humiliated, unable to even trip over a single word.

Having given up on the prospect of curing his affliction, ‘Bertie’s’ patient and supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) corrals him into trying one last Doctor, whose ‘unorthodox’ approach had a good record of success. Descending into the bowels of Harvey street they meet the gauche Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who’s at no pains for airs and graces around the royals.

The initial session starts with an awkward bickering between a jovial therapist and prickily prince, the question of ‘how -do- I address you?’ opening up the formal and psychological minefield that the two of them spend the rest of the film trying to traverse. It’s not a million miles away from the therapy couch sessions of the equally guarded and overblown Tony Soprano; both subjects in desperate need of therapy, but outwardly set against the idea at every turn. The film skirts past the threat of overt psychoanalysis, as Bertie insists it’s a mere ‘physical affliction’ and that it should be treated as such. The coach (and the audience) obviously knows better, but our champ has to get in the comfort zone if he’s going to win the bout conquer his condition.

Of course, with the unwitting regent-to-be there’s the added tension of how Logue can interact with him on even the simplest of physical planes. The blocking of scenes is something you shouldn’t be too conscious of when watching a film, but the slow unstiffening of protocol, the opening of personal space is a nicely subtle way in which the drama plays out. As the Rocky has to learn to raise his guard (and slip the jab) so Bertie has to learn to drop his.

There’s initial doubt, the sudden epiphany, a training montage, an early victory, the inevitable rejection and push for independence, and the desperate and grovelling return to the mentor. Where the kernel of the story is drawn from historical details, the grand narrative arc is straight out of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and there’s something shamelessly enjoyable in seeing an underdog overcoming adversity and winning through in the end.

Having become the king, and following the nation into war Edward VI manages to lurch his way through a rousing speech to an uncertain nation. For all the grandstanding, the new found pomp carefully undermined with a human touch, the film goes all out to convince you Edward alone practically won the war before it had really begun. And the most embittered republicans aside, it’s very easy to get swept in the swoon of it, and no shame for that.

Many a voice online has been keen to echo this film as ‘one of those Sunday afternoon’ films. A DVD for the parents for Christmas. A safe bet. Could have been made for TV.

But that’s to do the film a disservice, and for all the film’s period trappings and royalist clappings, the heavyweight cast all pitch above average in trying to win you over and get you behind Team Bertie. The film is shot with a slight flair, the struggle (internal and external) played out more in personal space and in strangely conflicting shot-reverse-shot sequences. It’s a treat in more ways that one, and worthy of more than just your distracted ITV-matinee attention.

Four out of Five

The King’s Speech is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 7th of January 2011.

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A Long Take on Ruben Östlund and Involuntary

It’s no doubt hard to imagine a time when Swedish cinema wasn’t just about sadists and the broken individuals that pursue them. Sure enough there is a Swedish film industry apart from all things criminal and in the shadow of all this attention is a really rather brilliant film called De Ofrivilliga (or Involuntary to give it’s English title) that’s about to get a UK release. Five separate stories interwoven across and hour and forty minutes which, to quote the director Ruben Östlund, all build on the question of  ‘how is the individual affected by the herd mentality.’

Which is to say, how far would the individual go to not lose face in front of their peers? The conceit is simple, but the realisation nuanced, exploring a number of situations which not being universal are none the less recognisable in an abstract sense. The patriarch of the family gathering, refusing to admit the need for medical attention after taking a firework right in the eye; the tweenage girls leaning on a young man, a complete stranger, to buy them alcohol; the teacher ostracised in the staff room for speaking out against the transgressions of a colleague;  the recognised actress who can’t admit to having broken a coach toilet; the ‘lad’ who can’t reconcile his friends for having gone just too far. Each scenario is a unique approach to the same question, and watching the subject of each quietly writhe in subjugation is agonising yet perfectly recognisable. The fact that the film is shot in agonisingly long takes, consistently in extreme long-shot, or framed in such a manner as to exclude the majority of the action, really locks the viewer into every excruciating moment of discomfort.

Some might take this as a springboard to discussing how the pangs of individual concern throw a spotlight on the enshrined national responsibility towards social welfare, but this isn’t Wallander and all Swedish cinema is not just about the collapse of the Swedish Model. Not to underplay or under-read the film either, it’s just that Östlund’s filmography is far from conventional, and the stylistic influences he brings to bear aren’t so much Bergman and Sjöström, but by his own admission draw more from Youtube and extreme sports filmmaking. This is not to be glib or contrary either, as there’s a clear line of influence stretching right back to Östlund’s first break making off-piste skiing films.

The kind of fare in question is the sort you used to find on expensive vhs tapes, sold from behind the counter in skate and ski shops, and Östlund made a name for himself in the mid-nineties. His approach was marked by eschewing the fast cut, slow-motion-heavy ‘white powder porn’ of most skiing films,  and instead drawing on the unbroken aesthetic of skating and snowboarding videos. To borrow a well-worn truism from introductory film courses everywhere: Every Cut Is A Lie, but especially so in stunt driven extreme sports. With the cameramen perched on distant peaks, tele-photo lenses gazing across the valley, you don’t get any second chances and come missed jumps, broken bones, or even avalanches, whatever happens you keep on rolling. The effect is terrifying in it’s own right, and set to an upbeat soundtrack of mid-nineties Swedish indie-rock, the complete package is part travelogue, part music video, and bizarrely compelling irrespective of your prior interest in skiing.

His love of filmmaking came to supersede his interest in the subject, and his outsider filmography was his ticket to three years at the School of Photography at the University of Gothenberg. His approach persisted even in his graduate work, and in his 2002 documentary Familj Igen, in which Östlund reunited his divorced parents of 23 years, the 59 minutes of the film is broken by a mere 21 cuts. By the time he moved onto his first feature film the application of the extended take becomes a dangerously effective device in fudging the lines between fact and fiction. The provocatively titled Gitarrmongot [literally The Guitar Mongoloid, but you can replace Mongoloid with Spastic or any other equally un-PC playground barb] takes an even more disparate collection of characters and follows them as they go about their lives in Gothenburg. Some of it’s staged, some of it’s not. Some characters have their faces blurred out in a way which suggests they refused to sign an image-release form. Unless told otherwise you could easily mistake it for an open form documentary, much like the Finnish Living Room of the Nation. It’s not, but then you can’t say it’s a wholly fictional film either.

This merry melding of categories and expectations, a willingness to simply mess around with form is perhaps why I’m growing to like Östlund so much. I’ve not had a chance to see his latest short film Incident by a Bank, but it’s technical conceit alone is enough to really make me want to see it. A failed bank robbery, shot in high resolution digital (4K in case you care) in a single extreme long-shot take across a public square, with the narrative reconstructed by focusing the frame on specific actions within the fixed shot. Editing by means of pan and scan, if you will. Maybe I’m just curious out of a purely technical aspect, but a Gold Bear at the Berlin film festival gives me hope that it’s more than just a gimmick.

The shower of critical accolades and festival awards has also given Östlund enough of a platform to be technically experimental, and to stand by it. In a bizarrely informal breakfast programme interview on Swedish television Östlund was quietly taken to task for his ideology in approaching film. Gently pilloried for being internationally lauded but still overlooked by the Swedish Guldbagge film awards, Östlund gladly took the Swedish establishment to task for shunning non-conventional cinema. When asked what his main creative influences were he readily cites Youtube as his first port of call: an infinite sourcebook of staged and un-staged human emotion, both in terms of the viewer and the viewed. Allowed to cite a specific film Östlund asks the show to screen the clip Pygme Jerboa from Youtube, showing  a kangaroo mouse filmed by it’s doting owner.  To quote Östlund himself:  ‘In terms of vitality there isn’t a scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which can even measure with this clip.’ This isn’t said with the straightest of faces, but Östlund remains none the less earnest in highlighting how dead he feels the Swedish film establishment is.

When he says that his next film (called Play and currently in production) is primarily inspired by the Youtube film The Battle at Kruger you have to take him on his word, albeit with a pinch of salt of course. He’s no ‘Enfant Terrible’ but like his formal and aesthetic forebear Lars von Trier, you can’t take Östlund on his every word. There’s a humour and a openness in his approach to filmmaking, and goodness knows that’s something Swedish film is calling out for. A young Swedish director to get excited about is a very rare thing indeed, and hopefully there’s more formally interesting stuff to come.

If Involuntary is screening anywhere near you then you’d be well advised to seek it out.

Involuntary has it’s UK release on the 29th of October, and will be screening as such:

In London at the Apollo West End, the Odeon Panton Street and at the French Institute’s CinéLumière

Outside London at Zeffirellis (Amberside), The Filmhouse (Edinburgh), The National Media Museum (Bradford), and the Chichester Cinema at New Park.

[PS: If you’re at all curious about the film, do yourself a favour and skip the trailer and just watch this short film instead. It’s an obvious precursor in exactly the same vein as Involuntary but without giving the film itself away. It’s also a cracking short film in its own right.]

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Showing at the Showroom: Certified Copy

Certified Copy shouldn’t work. The sum just can’t be greater than its constituent parts. It shouldn’t even get out of the starting gate, let alone get off the ground.

We all have our preconceptions and prejudices going into certain films, and for my sins I can’t shake off a certain sniffiness about both Juliet Binoche and the cloyingly middle-aged, middle-class francophone (af)fair she’s unremmitingly tied to. I’m unjustly throwing her in with recent films like Leaving and The Father of My Children, where the trailers haven’t sold me on the film being anything more than the same old document of French folk, their existential ennui and the ineventiable infidelity which follows.

On the surface at least, Certified Copy seemed to be clanging this cliché both loud and proud, but despite veering off in said direction the film rather deftly skims the surface of the matter, and manages to remain compelling throughout.

In brief: Anxious Mother of One pursues visiting Silver-Haired Scholar, who indulges her doting fan-boyism by agreeing to meet her privately the next day. Awkward introductions lead to an escape to the beautiful Tuscan landscape they happen to be surrounded by. Cue a seemingly never-ending series of unflinching shot/reverse-shot discussions on love/life/art, and the meaning of ‘it all.’

Synopsised the film sounds absolutely agonising, but Binoche is well met by the breezy William Shimell, a renowned baritone making his screen debut. Their nascent if unsure connection skips over the awkwardness and dives straight into the failures of their own personal relationships, without respite hitting the guaranteed dead-weight topics of love, marriage and everything inbetween.

Breaking for a coffee Shimell gets mistaken by a local for Binoche’s husband, and distanced from the overly critical Italians this new/old pairing carry on the pretence before gliding defty into some rather heavy and shouty domestics. They argue like a married couple of 20+ years, the confidence and assumption of a twinkling love turned into a pitch black bitterness wondering where it all went. You sit expecting someone to snap out of the charade, to call shenanigans on the whole thing. But they don’t, and somehow I got carried along with it all.

I know others in my company weren’t quite as sold on it, but I don’t know how, or even why, but somehow inspite of myself, and inspite of itself, Certified Copy managed to completely hook me in. Maybe I’m just a sucker for walking-and-talking romances, the intimate-stranger dynamic we’ve seen trodden so thoroughly in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Maybe it’s the bizarre to-fro, push-pull dynamic between Binoche and Shimell which keeps the film afloat.

It’s just another French infidelty drama, of sorts. On paper it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does, and that alone makes it a little bit of brilliant. 

Four out of Five.

Certified Copy is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 3rd of September 2010

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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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The 12th British Silent Film Festival

british silent montageThrough the course of my daytime adventures/studies I have the tremendous fortune of attending a number of conferences, and more importantly festivals dedicated to the dead art of silent cinema. It baffles many people how anyone could ever be so obsessive with something so ‘primitive’ and ‘arcane’ something so abstract to what we know and love, what with the All-Singing All-Dancing Technicolour Widescreen Real-D Surround Sound Cinema of today.

Many would be quick to rebuff any such harsh judgements, but of course I see where the layman might be coming from. Grubby unclear films, with little people running around at supernatural speeds to the merry plink and plonk of the honky-tonk piano can easily seem pretty Neanderthal.

Needless to say this is a pretty cruel vision of silents, coloured by decades of worn prints being show at 50% the speed they should be running at, with picked-out-of-a-basket soundtracks slapped on to fill the silence. Silent film festivals are about reversing that, reviving living soundtracks with both improvised and especially scored music, showcasing some of the finest film restorations from across the world. Films that demonstrate the birth of a medium at one end, and the perfection of it at the other.

It baffles me that anyone who claims to love film could possibly keep themselves away!

Last weekend saw the annual British Silent Film Festival set up shop in the imposing Barbican centre in central London, and for 3 (and a half) days the organisers did an excellent job of putting on some amazing talks and performances around some know, and some lesser know films from the silent era. The topic of ‘Sound’ was the focus of the festival, looking both at the early experiments with sounded motion pictures, as well as looking at the issues faced by modern musicians tasked with accompanying these films. The latter in particular proves a fascinating meeting point for film historians and improvisational musicians.

stephen horne and the ancreA presentation by Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum and the musician Stephen Horne looked at the arguments for and against the use of cue sheets provided with the First World War propaganda film Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks. Is it right to impose a modern score which might colour a film as elegiac? A soundtrack to the living dead marching off to what we widely regard today as a futile battle? The film was shot with optimism that the war could now be won, and that the tank in particular was the one device which could potentially break The Hun. Cue sheets from the time can be equally problematic, with no connection to the action on screen, and sometimes with unwittingly dangerous associations to the modern ear. One reel of The Ancre cited Entrance of the Gladiators as the appropriate backing music, yet little did music arrangers in 1917 appreciate quite the clownishly insensitive connotations this would have in the latter part of the century.

Click here to listen to the less than dignified Entrance of the Gladiators

Other musical treats in the festival included a morning of bizarre early sound experiments showcased by film historian Tony Fletcher (Teddy Brown and his Xylophone being my particular favourite),  a screening of Britain’s first complete sound feature Under the Greenwood Tree (a curious if occasionally quite stilted take on Hardy’s classic), an orchestrally accompanied screening of Griffith’s classic damsels-on-ice-floes-thriller Way Down East (complete with crash-bang-wallop radio style sound effects), as well as a one off performance of the silent western White Oak accompanied by Five Live’s own Mark Kermode, The Dodge Brothers and Neil Brand!

silent kermode and the dodge brothersIf the quiff and the double bass wasn’t a big enough indicator: That’s him to the far left. He’s even been so generous as to slam modern bombastic cinema (a la Michael Bay) for having forgotten the ‘melody of melodrama’ so apparrent in silents. To hear his reflections on Moderns vs Silents, as well as the White Oak performance click HERE.

Kermode’s promised more shows in the future, and I can’t wait. Not so much to hear some more bass-slappin’, string-pickin’ Americana to my silents but also to help drag in some more Kermode fan-boys and girls into the slightly hidden world of silents. I had the opportunity to tempt two of my ‘normal’ film friends to two of the evenings performances and they absolutely loved it. The varied tempo, the melodrama and the occassionally baffling plot lines can be hard work at first, but once you settle into it you really do get a brilliantly unique, fascinating, and often gripping film experience.

silent shooting starsThe Barbican play regular host silent screenings throughout the year, and a number are regularly doing the rounds on art house cinema circuits around the country. If you hear of one coming to town with a budding musician or two in tow then really do go out of your way to check it out.

It may well be a notch or two outside most peoples comfort zone, but how can you continue to live oblivious of an era where square-jawed male heroes could regularly cry with relief for romantic and narrative resolution, and where dogs were regularly used as the ultimate Deus ex Machina? If that isn’t amazing, then I don’t know what is.

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