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The Economist

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

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