Saturday, 26 November 2011

Quote for the Week

'A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;–not to be represented on canvas or marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself' - Henry David Thoreau in Walden.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

London Film Festival 2011: A Short Round Up

For a number of reasons, I only got the chance to see 25 films at this year's LFF. That small sample, though, was enough for me to realise what a strong programme it was this year (and general consensus among friends seems to suggest I'm not alone in thinking this). A fitting send off, then, for Artistic Director Sandra Hebron, who's done such a brilliant job at the helm over the last nine years.

Among the films I was disappointed to miss were The Kid with a Bike and The Descendants – two new works from directors I admire very much. Of the films I did see, I thought that this year, rather than reviewing them all, I'd do a simple round up of some of my personal favourites. Despite falling into this category, I've excluded The Artist because I've already written about it here.

Starting close to home, there were four films on show which proved the diversity and talent currently on offer in British cinema: Two Years At Sea, Wild Bill, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Weekend. Perhaps of them all, Will Bill was the biggest surprise for me: council estate crime films are not necessarily a favourite genre of mine. And yet there's something incredibly compelling about Dexter Fletcher's tale of a father reconnecting with his children after being released from prison. The guns and the drugs may be there for those who want them, but at its heart the film is a family drama – and a very good one at that. Making his directorial debut after over 35 years as an actor, Fletcher bringers a visual panache to the proceedings, while also drawing pitch-perfect performances from his outstanding cast.

Wild Bill

Despite being a wildly different film, similar accolades can also be levelled at Lynne Ramsay, whose We Need to Talk About Kevin is also a drama about a parent-child relationship. Beginning with flawless poetic flourishes, I did think the film flat-lined slightly in its middle section, before building to its shattering dénouement. The film went on to win best film at the festival, and although it may not have been the perfect piece I was hoping for, it certainly doesn't feel like an unjustified award given that the film offers further proof of Ramsay's singular directorial vision and confirms her status as one of Britain's most interesting directors. Special mention must also surely be made of its superb sound design.

Poetry of a different kind was also on offer in Ben River's Two Years At Sea, in which a long-take aesthetic builds to sublime moments. Hypnotic though it is right from the off (thanks in no small part to its beautiful black and white photography), it's true that the film's minimalism perhaps works against it amounting to any true sense of profundity. But in its careful observation of man and nature the film does provide a glimpse into the true nature of man.

Two Years At Sea

Andrew Haigh's Weekend, meanwhile, arrived at the festival with a lot of buzz, due in no small part to the fact that it scooped the audience award earlier this year at SXSW. It's not hard to see why. In its story of a one night stand developing into something more in the day(s) that follow, it recalls the former SXSW hit Medicine for Melancholy, though here the focus is on being gay in modern Britain (Nottingham to be exact) rather than being black in modern America (San Francisco). Like Medicine for Melancholy, Weekend is charming, tender and touching, and manages to explore wider social issues cohesively through the relationship of its central characters.

Elsewhere in the festival were new films from José Luis Guerín, George Clooney and Richard Linkater, all of whom regular readers may recognise as being personal favourites of mine. Early reports about Linklater's latest, Bernie, had me worried, but thankfully these worries proved to be unfounded. In its weaving of fact and fiction, interviews and dramatic reconstruction, to tell the story of murderer Bernie Tiede (a career-best from Jack Black), the film manages both a formal and a moral complexity among its deceptively simple and humorous exterior. Clooney's The Ides of March likewise exceeded my expectations. Ever since From Dusk Till Dawn Clooney has been, for me, one of the most enjoyable actors to watch on screen, but as early as his directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, he showed an equally-great confidence on the other side of the lens. This confidence turned into perfection with Good Night, and Good Luck., but the seeming misstep of Leatherheads and the reviews out of Venice seemed to suggest Ides wouldn't match his earlier foray into the political landscape of America. And perhaps it doesn't. But its tightly woven drama still made it one of the most engrossing, complete and satisfactory pieces I saw at the festival.

Correspondence: Jonas Mekas – JL Guerín

I wish the same could be said for the whole of Correspondence: Jonas Mekas – JL Guerín, but unfortunately it's only half true. A serious of video letters between the two eponymous directors, Correspondence shows Guerín to be the true poet of cinema I suspected him to be, but Mekas' sections remain intermittently interesting at best, much like his Sleepless Night Stories, also screening at the festival. Perhaps seeing Correspondence so close to Sleepless Night Stories simply made for Mekas overkill, but it was certainly true that whenever his sections came on I was wishing for a return to Guerín's perfectly crafted images. Still, there are moments within Mekas' material which border on brilliance, but nothing in them comes close to Guerín's scene near the end with some struggling ants, which is undoubtedly among the most beautiful and exciting thing I've seen in a cinema all year.

Over in the archive section was another film from a favourite director: Roberto Rossellini's The Machine that Kills Bad People. An atypical foray into comedic fantasy, the film tells the story of a photographer whose camera kills the subjects of his photographs when the images are re-photographed. While it may not be as great as the masterpieces which surround it in Rossellini's oeuvre (coming as it does between Francesco, giullare di Dio and Europa '51), it certainly doesn't deserve to be as little seen as it is: most of the comedy hits home and the film raises plenty of moral and philosophical questions to churn over. The screening was preceded by a restored colour print of A Trip to the Moon, which, as visually striking as it is, remains, for me, a tad too long to sustain interest. Méliès was both a great innovator and a great filmmaker – I'm just still not convinced A Trip to the Moon is actually his greatest achievement.

The Machine That Kills Bad People

Two films which I feel deserve a special mention here, even if they didn't totally work for me, are Martha Marcy May Marlene and the much-lauded Miss Bala. Martha Marcy was superbly crafted and among the best directed films I saw at the festival, but although the narrative drew me in and pulled me along, I wasn't as taken with it as I was with the technical aspects of the film. Miss Bala, meanwhile, proved to be a little too oblique for its own good: I couldn't quite decide if it was genuinely complex or just a bit of a mess. Neither the story nor the character motivations were ultimately very clear. However, the film was definitely an interesting exercise in restricted point of view, while the long takes and constant shots from behind the protagonist's head were reminiscent of a computer game, thereby implicating the viewer in the film's events in a very clever way.

Silver Bullets

Also something of a mess, albeit this time all the more interesting for it, was Joe Swanberg's Silver Bullets. Those who have been following Swanberg's career will no doubt have certain expectations of his work, but Silver Bullets is something else entirely. Two and a half years in the making, it moves away from low-fi 'naturalism' of Hannah Takes the Stairs et al, in favour of something more along the lines of an expressionist tapestry. There are elements of horror, but if anything it feels more like a return to the experimental mode of filmmaking found in Kissing on the Mouth and LOL, Swanberg's first two features. Whether the film truly works is something which, if I'm honest, is up for debate: the music is too overbearing and there's a slight lack of overall cohesion which may well be the result of the film's torturous production process. But while it may not be Swanberg's most successful film in some respects, I can't help but feel that it may well be his most engrossing, fascinating, original and rich. As I've discussed previously, I think of Swanberg as an 'ideas based' filmmaker, and I think the ideas found in Silver Bullets are among his most interesting yet: there seems to be a genuine probing of the filmmaking process, and an almost-scathing, self-depreciating look at his own approach to it (it seems, at times, like the film is picking up on the autobiographical elements of Alexander the Last and peeling back the layers of metaphor to revel in an even more revealing attempt at self-understanding). I would say that it would be interesting to see where Swanberg goes from here, but since completing the film Swanberg has already completed a further four films. One of these, Uncle Kent, screened back-to-back with Silver Bullets at LFF. It was a charming and endearing film, if a little slender when viewed against the weight of Silver Bullets. If he continues at this rate of output, keeping up with his films may prove something of a challenge, but on the strength of the two on show here, it'll definitely be a challenge worth taking on.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A Blog Posts About Blog Posts...

Over the last few days I've written and filmed a few blog posts for other places, so thought it might be worth doing quick round up here...

First up, here's a piece I wrote on what I learnt about the art of screenwriting from the recent BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters' Lecture Series, while here's a piece on the cancellation of the 2012 Birds Eye Film Festival.

Next, here's a Vlog of a short talk I wrote on transmedia. A text version of the Vlog can be found here, and I've also embedded the video below.

Finally, there's also a new Life Just Is Postproduction Vlog, which you can watch here.