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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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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Films of 2010

31 12 2010


And so, without further ado, here’s my pick of the best films released in the UK in 2010:

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The American – A Review

1 12 2010

George Clooney, The American

George Clooney in 'The American'

Films about assassins can generally go in one of two directions. They can either play up the inherent air of stylishness, mystery and glamour that we seem to associate with hit-men, or they can try to play these associations down, and instead show us contract killers as they really are: flawed, desperate and, more often than not, a little incompetent.

Most directors seem to plump wholeheartedly for Option A (Le Samourai, Leon, No Country For Old Men), and even those who opt for Option B (Ghost Dog, Grosse Pointe Blank, In Bruges) seem to find it difficult to let go entirely of the studied, self-conscious ‘cool’ that we associate with the genre.

Anton Corbijn, whose 2006 debut Control told the story of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, here finds himself with a foot in both camps too. On the one hand, George Clooney’s Jack is an archetypal cool-as-ice hit-man: methodical, isolated and ready to kill in cold blood at the drop of a hat. On the other, as he lies low in a small Italian town after a bloody opening shoot-out in Sweden, he is a man haunted by his past and by the realisation that, if he were to put his work to one side for just a moment, he would find a life with precious little else left in it to call his own.

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We’re a long way from Phuket, Toto

19 11 2010
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives'

If a passing stranger with too much time on his hands were to ask me to make a list of the ten most important film-makers at work in the world today, then the name of the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul would be somewhere near the top.

Unfortunately, as I’ve discovered from bitter experience, the opinions of a semi-employable film ‘blogger count for little in this cold, hard world of ours. So it’s gratifying to see that Apichatpong (or Joe to his friends) is finally starting to receive the international recognition that he deserves for his work, with a Palme d’Or win at this year’s Cannes Festival and his latest film set to represent Thailand at next year’s Oscars.

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Another Year – A Review

11 11 2010

Another Year Mike Leigh

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the films of Mike Leigh. On the one hand, the 67-year-old director’s work is unique, intelligent and ambitious in a way that other British films often struggle to be. On the other, in films like Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), High Hopes (1988) and Abigail’s Party (1977) there always seems to be an uncomfortably thin line between characterisation and caricature, a line which the director, with his famous, semi-improvised approach to performance, seems too often to stray across.

So it was with bated breath that I settled down to watch Another Year, Leigh’s latest film, and a contender for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Another Year tells the story of a year in the life of Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), a happily-married, middle class couple drifting slowly and contentedly towards retirement. He works as a geologist, she as a counsellor; weekends are spent tending their allotment and cooking for friends and family.

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Enter The Void – A Review

29 09 2010
Gaspar Noe, Enter The Void

It's all gone a bit Pete Tong... 'Enter The Void'

What happens to us after we die?: perhaps the oldest and most troublesome question known to mankind. A question, nevertheless, which Argentinian-French director Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, Seul Contre Tous) sets out to tackle with characteristic gusto in his intense new film Enter The Void.

Never one to shy away either from controversy or from mind-bending visuals, Noé casts his film as an unapologetic ‘trip’ movie, a staggering, high-concept piece that takes its cue from The Tibetan Book of the Dead as it recounts the premature death and ghostly wanderings of a young American in Tokyo.

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