Unweaving The Rainbow

23 04 2012


The Kid with a Bike, Dardenne Brothers, Dardennes, Le Gamin Au Velo

'The Kid with a Bike'

Warning: like a car built in the 1980s, the article below may contain spoilers.

The latest film from the Dardenne brothers, The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin Au Vélo), was out in UK cinemas last month. The story of a young boy’s search for parental affection after being abandoned by his feckless father, it continues the brothers’ run of intense, character-driven dramas set in the post-industrial Belgian town of Seraing, where they grew up.

A hallmark of the Dardennes’ work – perhaps even its defining feature – is their adherence to a kind of gritty but humanistic realism. They’re big fans of Britain’s Ken Loach and, like Loach, they try to present working class characters and their problems in a straightforward, unmannered way, eschewing most of the usual conventions of Hollywood-style film-making.

So although we can see that the titular kid with the titular bike (Thomas Doret) has been dealt a rough hand in life, the directors avoid sentimentalising his predicament. In fact, he spends much of the film testing the sympathy that we, and the woman who decides to care for him (Cécile de France), feel for him, attacking people who are trying to help him and getting involved in petty crime.

In general, The Kid with a Bike is powerful stuff, but one scene in particular almost ruined the film for me. Recruited by an older boy to mug a convenience store owner, the tiny Cyril (for that’s his name) rushes towards a much bigger, taller man and knocks him unconscious by swiping once at his midriff with a baseball bat. The unfortunate shopkeeper lies silent and unbloodied at Cyril’s feet, before emerging later in the film displaying none of the ill effects (bruising, mental trauma) that one might associate with having been knocked unconscious. In the same scene Cyril goes on to knock out a second person in the same way, but in the resulting legal proceedings gets off with a slap on the wrist and a fine.

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This Is Not A Review

31 03 2012
This Is Not A Film, Jafar Panahi

'This Is Not A Film'

Necessity is the mother of invention: nowhere, in the world of cinema, has this been demonstrated more strikingly and more often than in Iran. Hemmed in by political censorship on one side and budgetary constraints on the other, Iranian film-makers (or at least those not working in purely commercial cinema) have long escaped into myth, allegory and street-level neorealism in their work.

One such film-maker is Jafar Panahi whose films have often used small-scale stories set on the fringes of society to examine wider social issues in microcosm. The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006), for example, both dealt with the position of women in Iranian society, the first through a series of stories about newborn girls and female ex-prisoners, the second by following a group of teenage girls trying to sneak into a men-only football game. Similarly, The White Balloon (1995) was a deceptively simple children’s film that managed to contain a whole world in one small girl’s quest to buy a goldfish from her local market.

Panahi’s room for manoeuvre has, sadly, been limited still further over the past 3 years. Arrested for his links with the ‘Green’ protest movement in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the director spent time in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail before being released and put under house arrest. In an additional cruel twist, the authorities have banned him both from leaving the country and from making films for the next 20 years.

This Is Not A Film, made under these conditions and smuggled out of Iran hidden inside a cake, is Panahi’s response to this enforced inactivity. As such it’s both a brave, defiant film and potentially a very dangerous one.

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Emotional Machines: the films of Bruno Dumont

16 02 2012
Bruno Dumont, Hadewijch film


There’s a nice moment in Bruno Dumont’s hypnotic 2003 road movie Twentynine Palms when two weary travellers, an American photographer and his Russian girlfriend, are slobbing out in a California motel room. In a corner of the room, half-ignored, is a TV showing a series of abstract images; a camera panning slowly around the outside of a building at night, the scene lit by periodic flashes of neon. “What’s that?” the woman asks eventually in French, the only language that the lovers have in common. “I dunno”, he says. “An art movie I think.”

Dumont’s own films would, it’s fair to say, be located firmly within the ‘art movie’ bracket by most people. Over the last 15 years, the French director has ploughed a unique furrow in European cinema, with a series of films (La Vie de Jesus, L’Humanité, Flandres) that have sharply divided, and sometimes outraged, audiences and critics alike.

This week Dumont’s 2009 film Hadewijch appears in UK cinemas, more than a year after its release in France, the United States and other countries. It tells the story of Céline (Julie Sokolowski), a devout young woman who is expelled from a convent for her extreme devotional practices (fasting, exposing herself to the elements) and told to go out and experience the world before deciding to devote herself to God. Returning to Paris, and her wealthy parents, she soon befriends Yassine (Yassine Chikh), a young Muslim from an impoverished housing estate with leanings towards Islamic extremism. Céline, the virginal Christian extremist, becomes involved in Yassine’s Islamist world and eventually in his violent plans.

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The Artist – a review

9 01 2012

Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Michel Hazanavicius

There may well be a more charming and entertaining film to start the new year with than Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, but right now it’s difficult to think of one offhand. Since premièring at Cannes last year, a seemingly unstoppable head of critical and commercial steam has been building behind this effortlessly light and imaginative comedy, with many talking up its chances as a contender in February’s Oscars.

The Artist takes us back to the glory days of silent Hollywood, and into the life of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a handsome, moustachioed and ever-so-slightly ridiculous hero of big screen action and swashbuckling films, somewhat in the mould of Douglas Fairbanks.

We first encounter George at a screening of his latest film, as he, a starlet and his cigar-chomping producer, played by John Goodman (a man born to play a cigar-chomping producer), wait behind the screen to eavesdrop on the audience’s reaction.

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Films of 2011

30 12 2011

Now I’ll be the first to admit that my film ‘blogging has become a little bit… well, shall we say ‘sluggish’ this past year. Travelling, film-making and working in an office have all played their part in slowing the once Amazon-like flow of words from my keyboard to a trickle as has, it must be admitted, a streak of laziness running through my bones like words through a stick of rock.

On the other hand, my film-going habit has continued apace and at various points this year I’ve found myself spellbound, surprised, shocked and staggered in the cinema. Below then is my selection of the finest films released in the UK in 2011. 

As for 2012, well I can only promise to redouble (or perhaps even re-quadruple) my efforts in the new year, and to endeavour to share some thoughts on cinema with you much more often.

My Top Six

Le Quattro Volte / The Four Times (Michelangelo Frammartino)

A story of goats, goatherds, charcoal-makers and burly men who cut down trees. Set deep in the Calabrian countryside, Michelangelo Frammartino’s film straddles a fine line between fiction and documentary. Its four stories are based around observations of Italian peasant life and loosely correspond to Pythagoras’ ideas about the different states that the soul passes through during transmigration (or reincarnation): mineral, vegetable, animal, man.

There’s hardly any dialogue yet the film contains some of the most dramatic and involving scenes that I’ve witnessed in the cinema all year. A baby goat becomes lost from the flock and wanders bleating over the winter hillsides; a sick old man gathers dust swept up from a church floor and mixes it with water to drink as a medicine; a towering fir tree is chopped down in the forest, hauled into a medieval hilltop town and re-erected in the market square for a local festival.

Particularly staggering is a 10-minute scene featuring a Passion play, a sheepdog, a pick-up truck and some escapee goats, miraculously choreographed in one unbroken shot. An antidote to Terrence Malick’s overblown Tree of Life, this is a piece of work that should be sought out by film-makers, students of film and anyone else interested in the poetic power of cinema.

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Meek’s Cutoff – A Review

26 04 2011


Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt, Bruce Greenwood

The revisionist Western has been with us for so long now that it seems almost impossible to imagine any contemporary film-maker wanting to produce a piece of work on the old ‘good-guys-in-white-hats, bad-guys-in-black-hats’ template. From Clint Eastwood’s 1992 excoriation of his gun-toting past in Unforgiven to Jim Jarmusch’s brutal and chaotic Dead Man, from TV’s expletive-laden Deadwood to Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the Western has become a much more critical, questioning genre than ever before, with the old heroic certainties of the West long dead and buried somewhere out on the prairie.

The latest addition to the genre is Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt, hitherto best known for her low-budget portrayals of contemporary American life (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy). In it, the director tells the story of a group of pioneers on or, more to the point, off the Oregon Trail in 1845.

As the film opens, the pioneers – three married couples and a boy – are well and truly lost. Having broken away from the main trail to follow the ‘cutoff’ suggested to them by their charismatic guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), they find themselves in an arid, almost featureless landscape of prairie grass and salt flats, with no obvious indication of which way to turn their wagons next.

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Most popular posts of 2010

4 01 2011


… And if you’re still game for pointless lists, here are the 5 posts that proved most popular on this ‘blog with you, the readers, in 2010:

'Paranormal Activity'


Location, Location, One Location December 2009

Luis Buñuel

Buñuel on set


The Luis Buñuel Film School February 2010
1 comment

Christoph Waltz in 'Inglourious Basterds'


Mind Your Language September 2009

Mad Men

Draper thinks about smoking a fag


At The Movies with Don Draper March 2010
1 Like on WordPress.com,

Bad Santa? Michael Haneke


Happy Haneke November 2009