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City of God

Hands down, one of the most powerful movies of the last ten years is City of God. I reviewed the film for The Economist along with the Sokhorov meditation, Russian Ark, then got another stab at a review of it in The Times Literary Supplement. (ps. If you dug this film, you should definitely check out Manda Bala, a superbly creative and well-produced documentary about violence and corruption in Brazil).

Here’s an excerpt from the TLS article:

From the US-Mexican border (El Mariachi) and Mexico City (Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien), to Brazil (Central Station) and Argentina (Nine Queens), Latin American cinema is resurgent. Perhaps we have television to thank for this; during the 1980s, television colonized South America as it had the US in the 1950s and Europe in the 60s. The latest film-maker to graduate from the small screen is Fernando Meirelles, and his film, City of God, is possibly the best Brazilian movie of the past ten years. Walter Salles, director of Central Station (1998), is one of the film’s producers, and his own brand of social realism is everywhere apparent in City of God; but where Salles used his camera as a passive observer, with an almost patrician detachment, Meirelles turns his into a character. The camera and crew, though off-screen, are ever present. Awareness of the camera lends the film a documentary feel and gives it its dynamism and pull.

Based on Paolo Lins’s book of the same name, City of God charts the rise of drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro’s infamous favelas, from the early 1960s to the late 70s. Salles believes that “Brazilian reality has surpassed the majority of attempts to portray it in fiction”, and that “the acceleration of social decomposition has transformed violence into a banality”. But Meirelles, undaunted, has found a way of presenting that reality on film. With co-director, Katia Lund, and Guti Fraga, who founded and runs an acting and theatre school in the hillside favela of Vidigal, he set up a studio at Rio’s Fundicao Progresso to find and train children for the hundred or so roles needed for the film, and named the group, “We From the Movies”, in homage to Fraga’s school, “We From the Hillside”. But, as in Lins’s book, the film’s main character is not a person but a place -one of Rio’s worst favelas, the City of God. The film was shot on location and uses only natural lighting. The actors are mainly non-professional kids from the favelas. The script was used only to guide, not dictate, the dialogue. As a result, the audience is deeply involved in the story: we are participating witnesses to the descent into violence and anarchy.

And you can read the whole article here.

Fear and Goading

I’m not a huge fan of Michael Moore’s documentary style, though his movies are always great yarns, and Bowling for Columbine is not a great film. But it did what many good films don’t – ask tough questions. I reviewed the film and delved a little into those questions in an article for The Times Literary Supplement in December of 2002. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Michael Moore’s first film, Roger & Me (1989), was a documentary pursuit of Roger Smith, chief executive of General Motors at a time when GM was North America’s largest car manufacturer. In it, Moore chased Smith across the North-Eastern United States, trying in vain to persuade him to visit Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown, to apologize to its citizens for having transferred GM’s factories from Flint to Mexico. The attempt was unsuccessful. But Moore’s style -the baseball cap, stubble and slouch, his ill- fitting jeans and hobbled gait -became something for left-wingers to cheer, right-wingers to bemoan. His new film, Bowling for Columbine, is about guns, and has grossed more than $10 million -a lot for a documentary. Has that success anything to do with the fact that the film was released the day the Washington Beltway sniper claimed his eighth victim? The criticism directed at both the film and the author suggests not. Bowling for Columbine was first shown at Cannes, where it won a prize. In the United States, its reception has been mixed: Moore has been described as “dangerous”, “irresponsible” and a “schlub”. Oprah, on the other hand, called Columbine a “must see”.

And here’s the full article.

Movie Poster for Bowling For Columbine

Parker Posey: Queen of Sundance

Ok, I admit it. I have a crush on Parker Posey. Not a romantic crush. Just a cinematic one. I think she’s brilliant. I love her acidic snarl and doe-like eyes. She has millimeter-perfect dramatic timing. So, I sort of swooned when I got to meet her for two seconds in the press line at Sundance in 2007. She was there for two movies, Broken English and Fay Grim. Both really good films, and she excelled in both. Here’s an excerpt from the piece I wrote in

If Sundance has an aristocracy (go figure) then Parker Posey is the Queen of the festival. Sure, there are others, ingenues and waifs, divas and dames, but none commands the elements of raw emotion and sharp comedy in such achingly easy juxtaposition as Posey, and has done so time and time again at a festival that has come to define independent cinema in the US. In a year of few standouts (no “Little Miss Sunshine”, no “Hustle and Flow”) but plenty of seven figure acquisitions, Posey has once again gracefully entered the ballroom with her signature poise and class.

Read the whole article here.

Movie Poster for Broken English

Movie Poster for Fay Grim

Myth in the Making

One of my favourite films out of Latin American is Walter Salles’s Motorcycle Diaries. Having travelled much of the same route that Ernesto “Che” Guevara took back in 1952, the film has special meaning for me. The places and people in the film are very real, and Salles didn’t have to do much to recreate the look of half a century ago.

I reviewed the film in September 2004 for the Times Literary Supplement. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Biopics are often unwieldy films, swinging from hyperbole to mawkishness and back.

The best ones tends to focus on a particular time in their famous subject’s life – a time that encapsulates both the mythology and the humanity of the person. Walter Salles’s new film The Motorcycle Diaries does this for Ernesto “Che” Guevara, taking its title from Guevara’s own travel memoir, and recreating his transformation from restless adventurer with vague notions of social justice to man of revolutionary conviction. In December 1951, two young Argentines, Alberto Granado and Ernesto Guevara Lynch -one a biochemist, the other a twenty-three-year-old medical student -set off on an eight-month journey across Latin America on a rickety 1939 Norton motorbike. The bike made it, just, across the Andes into Chile before quitting on them half way to Santiago. From there, the two men carried on via boat, plane, train, truck, and by foot, across Chile’s Atacama desert, over Peru’s snow-capped mountains to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, through Lima’s sprawl, and down the Amazon to Colombia, then Venezuela.

Salles is aware of the ecology of Guevara’s journey: that the territory through which the young men travel defines their drama as much as Guevara’s testimony.

You can read the full article here.

Passing the Torch

At the 2003 Telluride Film Festival I again reviewed two films for The Economist, both from young directors testing the waters and both beautiful in very different ways. The first, Reconstruction, by Danish director Christoffer Boe, won Camera d’Or at Cannes, was fairly widely released (for a Danish film) and was a stylish and noirish love mystery. The second, My Life Without Me, starred some up and coming talent here in the US – Sarah Polley and Mark Ruffalo – and also found room for a wonderful supporting cast including Scott Speedman, Amanda Plummer and the still beautiful Debbie Harry as Polley’s hard working and downtrodden mother.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

TWO films, both deserving of popular and critical acclaim, stood out at the Telluride film festival earlier this month. “Reconstruction”, which had earlier won a Camera d’Or at Cannes, is a stylish and contemporary exploration of love and trust. Alex (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Aimee (Maria Bonnevie), both entertaining doubts about their respective partners, meet for a night of passion. Upon waking, Alex’s world has shifted subtly, yet with menace. The door to his flat is gone; his girlfriend Simone, his father and his friends claim not to know him. Only Aimee remains the same, and Alex must decide what is real. That Aimee and Simone are played by the same actress hints at his dilemma.

Christoffer Boe, the director, co-wrote the script with Mogens Rukov, his former teacher at that hotbed of contemporary Danish cinema, the National Film School of Denmark. But this is no Dogma film. Echoes of an Elizabethan fascination with the illusory lurk beneath the surface as David, Aimee’s novelist husband, Prospero-like, writes Alex’s and Aimee’s story as it happens. Mr Boe cites Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises in Style” as inspiration, so it is no surprise that the film has turned out to be a cool looping pastiche of cinematographic style that just manages to hold its disparate parts together.

And you can read the full article here.

Movie Poster for "My Life Without Me"

Movie Poster for "Reconstruction"

Exactly what is it about “no” you don’t understand?

I’ve been fascinated by Dogme95 since it’s first successful incarnation in Thomas Vinterberg’s brilliant 1998 film, Celebration. At the 2003 Sundance Film Festival there were three films that caught my eye and that were all either directly or indirectly connected to the Dogme95 movement, so I managed to persuade the Books and Arts editor at The Economist to let me write a piece that tied them together within the context of Dogme95. Here’s an excerpt:

IT’S probably not what you expected, but three new films—two Danish, one American—show beyond doubt that Dogma 95, the austere production manifesto that emanated from Copenhagen, is still inspiring fresh, arresting work eight years on. “Open Hearts”, the latest film to be made under Dogma 95′s vow of chastity—no artificial lighting, no make-up, no added music, no genre stories—carries its credentials well. Directed by Susanne Bier (openly credited though the rules disallow it), the film is a fine example of where the manifesto works, and where it is best to junk it.

The plot is somewhat surreal (Mike Leigh meets Pedro Almodóvar). Cecilie and Niels fall in love after Niels’s wife runs over Cecilie’s fiancé with her car. But the closeness that the Dogma style allows between the actors and the audience maintains the emotion of a moving and poignant love story. The actors, freed from the dictates of lighting, circle and confront one another with the electricity of a documentary. Mads Mikkelsen is outstanding as the confused, reticent Niels.

Like Mark Twain with the truth, Ms Bier sticks to the rules but stretches them a little. We hear Cecilie’s Walkman as clearly as if we wore the headphones ourselves, while a greying of the film’s tone and a whirring sound reminiscent of Super-8 (though the film was shot in digital) reveal the character’s internal thoughts: for example, Cecilie imagining her fiancé, in reality paralysed from the neck down, reaching out to touch her face. The result is a string of moments forming a sharply drawn narrative arc that remains true to the spirit of Dogma, even as it indicates where to cross some of the manifesto’s boundaries.

For the whole article click here.

Movie Poster for "Open Hearts"

Movie Poster for "Pieces of April"

Movie Poster for "It's All About Love"

Life Cuts

In 2002 I wrote a special review of Mexican cinema, focusing on three films, Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá Tambien, and De La Calle. The first two are now household names, the last one though was never released in the US. My angle was the recent renaissance in filmmaking in Mexico (this was ten years ago), and how it was very much of it’s time but also with roots in the the golden era of Mexican cinema in the 40s and 50s – a gritty, cinema verité style but with deep passions and smart camera technique.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

THE golden age of Mexican cinema, through the 1940s and 1950s, established an aesthetic that was as varied as it was distinctly Mexican. Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez, Alejandro Galindo and Gabriel Figueroa are some of the great names of the era. Three new movies from Mexico, “De La Calle” (Streeters), “Amores Perros” (Love’s a Bitch) and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (And Your Mama Too), draw on this heritage and redefine it. Part of Mexico’s recent cinematic renaissance, these films embrace experimentation without leaving viewers behind. All three are humanist in outlook and use contemporary Mexico as both a psychological and a physical backdrop for their stories.

In “De La Calle” Gerardo Tort tells the story of two teenagers living on the streets of Mexico city. Using a film-developing process known as silver-retain, which heightens the contrast between light and dark, he creates a world in which the lines between objects are blurred. Daylight is harsh and bleached, so that the brightness of a butcher’s apron stands out against the viscera on his chopping block, while the butcher himself blends into the white-tiled wall. Stealing a ride on a ferris wheel, the two kids talk of escaping from the streets, their forms silhouetted against the electric blue of a pre-dawn sky. This is a kind of realism, albeit one that has more to do with the way Mr Tort captures the essence of a moment or an experience than with his presentation of the visible world. But as such it is an effective way to evoke the harshness of the streets.

“Amores Perros”, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, shares the richly textured feel of “De La Calle”. Handheld cameras and Steadicams bring us into its characters’ worlds. In one tense scene the camera pans quickly back and forth between two people, without cuts, focusing on their faces, effectively turning the viewer into a participant.

For the whole article click here.

Amores Perros film poster

Shooting History

I discovered this unheralded indie film at Sundance 2004. It really impressed me, more for its brazen production method than for its plot or acting which were both simple and decent but nothing outstanding. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

ABOUT half way through “September Tapes”, a fictional documentary set in post-Taliban Afghanistan and one of the more interesting films screened at this month’s Sundance film festival, the protagonists get involved in a gun battle with Taliban fighters. No surprises here: as civilian westerners near the Pakistani border they are easy targets. What does come as a shock, though, is the unmistakable sound of live ammunition. To borrow Michael Herr’s words, the elephant is right there, sitting on your chest.

Part “Blair Witch Project”, part “Apocalypse Now”, “September Tapes” tells the story of three people searching for an elusive truth, in this case the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden in the middle of Afghanistan at war. George Calil makes a superb job of playing Don Larson, a gung-ho American journalist deeply affected by the September 11th terrorist attacks. Driven on by a hidden resolve, he drags his cameraman, Sonny, and their American-Afghan translator/guide, Wali (Wali Razaqi) deeper and deeper into the heart of the war between the Northern Alliance and the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Read the rest of the article here.

Trailer for September Tapes

Petersburg Magic and Rio Gangs

Film review of Russian Ark and City of God in the Sept 21st 2002 issue of The Economist. I saw both films in their US premieres at the 2002 Telluride Film Festival, and also had the honor of interviewing Fernando Mereilles (dir. City of God) and Tilman Butner who shot Russian Ark. Both films are tour de forces, both technically brilliant and visually stunning. They are also, in very different ways, close to being faultless cinematic narratives.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

CINEMA today is all too often just about plot or special effects. So films that are true to the medium, successfully weaving together sound, image and time to tell a really cinematic story are always special. On show at Telluride earlier this month were two remarkable examples.

Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark”, which opens in the United States in November, explores the 300-year-long history of the Hermitage museum in a single “breath”, an uncut 90-minute walk through 35 of its rooms and halls. This has never been done before, and the result is, among other things, a magical rumination on what film can achieve.

Tilman Büttner, the director of photography who operated the steadicam used to shoot the film, has turned the camera into one of its main characters, a contemporary film maker trapped in a journey through Russian history, with Mr Sokurov himself speaking its part. As we move from room to room an array of different scenes come up—Peter the Great whipping one of his generals, for example, or present-day visitors enjoying the works of art. The camera is invisible to the film’s other characters, apart from a fellow time-traveller, a 19th-century French diplomat. The relationship between the camera and the diplomat, against the backdrop of some of Europe’s greatest works of art, reveals the main theme of the film, Russia’s uneasy link to its past and to Europe.

Read the rest of the article as a PDF here.

Sept 21st, 2002 Issue

Russian Ark Still

Still from Russian Ark

Poster for City of God

Jemaine Clement: New Zealand’s Finest Import

This is a post with links to an article I wrote about Flight of the Conchord‘s Jemaine Clement for I interviewed Clement by phone at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival after seeing him in the US premiere of Eagle vs Shark (New Zealand’s answer to Napoleon Dynamite). This was just before Flight of the Conchords came out on HBO. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

In Eagle vs. Shark, New Zealand’s latest cinematic export (nationwide from June 29th), Jemaine Clement plays Jarrod, possibly the nerdiest anti-hero since, well, since “Napoleon Dynamite.”

The comparison is an obvious one but Jarrod isn’t simply a carbon copy of Napoleon D. He’s more Napoleon Mach 2 than Napoleon Redux. He’s more settled in his nerdiness, happier with his inner geek, and with a lot more chest hair. As a result he’s a lot sexier, a lot darker and mysterious, and a lot more ready for the kind of romantic comedy that writer/director Taika Waititi thrusts upon him.

Read the full article here.

Movie Poster for Eagle vs Shark

HBO Poster for 2nd Season of Flight of the Conchords

Matthew Barney

At the 2003 Sundance Film Festival I saw Cremaster 3, the final film in Matthew Barney’s five movie opus, The Cremaster Cycle. The film was soon to be part of a grand exhibition of the full Cycle at the Guggenheim in New York. I reviewed the movies and the associated sculptures, paintings and memorabilia for The Economist early in the spring of that year. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

A CRITIC once dismissed Matthew Barney as having “no composition, no structure, no emotion, not even any irony to speak of”. So why has the Guggenheim Museum dedicated its space to him for the next three months?

The answer lies with the artist’s daredevil humour and intractable openness which seem to respond particularly eloquently to our rule-bound, post-ironic times. He certainly speaks to the young, who have been flocking to this show ever since it opened last year at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne before travelling on, with similar youthful acclaim, to Paris and now New York.

Though he prefers to call himself a sculptor, Mr Barney is best known for his performance films. A former high-school football star and Yale University biology student, he suddenly came to the notice of the New York art world in 1991 with a filmed performance piece called “Blind Perineum”. Using titanium ice screws and a climbing harness, Mr Barney clambered naked across the gallery’s walls and ceilings and into a walk-in fridge that held nothing but a bench press made of cast petroleum jelly.

For the full article click here.

March 8th 2003 Issue

Still from Cremaster 1

Sundance Channel’s ‘The Art of Seduction’

One of my favourite pieces I did for was a review of a great little series of shorts distributed on The Sundance Channel called The Art of Seduction. Filmmakers were asked to make a short film using only their mobile phone and some of the results were very impressive. Guy Maddin’s short, Nude Caboose (see YouTube video below), was, in my opinion, the clear winner, having been the only one to actually shoot his film on a videophone. Here’s a link to The Art of Seduction movies, and here’s an excerpt from my article:

The cell phone is sexy. Really, it is. Its very function” short, instant communication – is inherently intimate, a perfect tool for seduction. We are social beings after all.

Taking over from the clunky ‘land line,’ in its day usurper of the far more romantic and languorous ‘billet doux,’ the mobile is a coy and desperate cupid. Text messages reduce language to haikus of hidden subtexts, while photo and video messages take this one step further: What lies just beyond the frame? What was the object of our desire doing before he sent that clip… and what is he doing now?

It is no surprise then that the Sundance Channel, no prudish school teacher of an organization, is running a series of short films for download to your mobile phone under the banner “The Art of Seduction.” According to Merriam-Webster’s, ‘to seduce’ has the following meanings: To persuade to disobedience, to lead astray, to entice to sexual intercourse, to lure, to attract. But the dictionary, like a teasing text message, leaves many questions unanswered, such as: In the act of seduction who really is the seducer and who the seduced? And how exactly does it happen? How do you do it?

And here’s a link to the full article.