Today at the BFI

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 8th April 2013 at 11:10 pm

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I'm just back from seeing The Place Beyond the Pines at the BFI Southbank. I have to say it contains a lot of what I don't like about cinema…obvious plot, predictable twists and a film that is such fodder that it was barely worth seeing.

Ryan Gosling's performance was solid, but really the film was too long by about an hour as the three strands of the story took forever to finally wind up. It dawns fairly early in the story what is going to happen, and from this point on you are begging for it to end. I think the woman I passed on the way out summed it up well when she screamed with full fury: “I hated every second of it, it was shit!”

Tonight's other film, Point Blank by John Boorman was a much more enjoyable, if slightly confusing film. A very contemporary feel, it had a simple, straight-ahead story, but the almost abstract themes running through it were visually striking and the editing gave the film a tense, unnerving feel.

I'm hoping to get back to the BFI tomorrow night and hope to see more before I head home.

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Film Review: To The Wonder (dir. Terrence Malick)

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 25th February 2013 at 10:51 pm

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Where to start? Following on from Terrence Malick's 2011 film The Tree of Life, I thought I knew what to expect from To The Wonder. Or so I thought.

Tree of Life offered an ethereal view on the origins of life, including the now infamous scene of merciful dinosaurs. This was fine in some respects as the film also made a reasonable attempt at a cohesive plot to glue together the various scenes which punctuated the storyline. It felt as though the film had an overriding theme, and although it was undoubtedly strange, you could kind of understand what Malick was hinting at.

With To The Wonder, I felt Malick was following on where he left off two years ago. The ethereal feel to the film was very much in evidence. Throughout. Annoyingly so. Did the film have a theme? Well, yes, but it was difficult to see how all the random shots of people wandering through wheat fields added much to this story of love.

Filmed almost entirely at sunset, the film had a golden hue throughout, with camera flare appearing in almost every shot. This just became grating, and when added to the constantly moving camera, coupled with characters who couldn't walk in a straight line and had to meander and spin through life rather too obviously, it became an odd parody the longer it went on. It felt like a badly filmed Chanel advert at one point. You could hear people laughing and sighing every time another shot appeared of a child-like woman aimlessly spinning through a field! At least ten people walked out of the screening I saw; the most escapees from the cinema I have seen since Dogtooth, which was at least genuinely controversial.

And then you have the characters themselves. Emotionless, naive, they appeared almost as bored as the audience were. Ben Affleck had nearly a dozen words throughout as he staggered and stuttered through a remarkably wasted appearance which, most of the time, involved him staring sullenly or awkwardly using gestures instead of speaking.

Overall, the film had a feel of a concept piece: something which was artful in its own way, and which would probably stand up well as a piece of art. But there are numerous European directors who provide a beautiful, cinematic, artful experience as well as a damn good story, without being pretentious (Ceylan, Kieslowski and Tarr spring immediately to mind). To The Wonder was obnoxious in trying to deliver art for the sake of it.

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Favourite Films of 2012

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 23rd December 2012 at 10:36 am

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In what is likely to be my last post of 2012, and seeing as I have no plans to get to the cinema before the year is out, I thought I would do the same thing as last year and write a blog about some of my favourite films of the year. In alphabetical order:

Top films of 2012

Amour

The latest film from one of my favourite directors, Michael Haneke, was unsurprisingly brilliant. An emotional tour-de-force that extracted every ounce of skill from the two lead actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva), this was one of the films I was most looking forward to this year; it did not disappoint!

Argo

Usually, seeing Ben Affleck's name on the poster would discourage me from seeing the film. However, based on a glowing recommendation, we braved it and Argo turned out to be one of the best of the year. Tense, gripping and beautifully shot, this was a brilliant thriller that avoided most of the stereotypes associated with 'good-versus-bad' films and simply told a good story.

The Artist

Although technically released in 2011, I didn't get to see this in the QFT in Belfast until January 2012. What can I say except that it was stunning?! I loved the concept and it would be the only film I saw twice this year. On the second viewing, my enthusiasm remained high!

Good Vibrations

Local films have tended to be hit or miss over the last few years. Good Vibrations, however, was an absolute winner. Shown at The Belfast Film Festival in May, this was funny, politically charged and featured an excellent punk soundtrack. It gave a fresh perspective on The Troubles and avoided the usual clichés.

Le Havre

This film by Aki Kaurismäki was a real delight. Bleak, cold and poverty-stricken, the story provided the only warmth of the film. Darkly funny in parts, it was a nice visual continuation of Carné's stunning Le Quai des Brumes (in which Jean Gabin was wonderful), also set in Le Havre, which was shown at the BFI earlier this year.

The Kid With A Bike

The first Dardenne film I have seen, and it was a rather nice story of a boy who lost his father (and his bike) and ended up being cared for by a kind stranger. Some good moments throughout, which made up for the slightly soppy ending.

The Master

I didn't know what to expect going into this film, apart from something loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Joaquin Phoenix delivered a devastating performance but for me it was Philip Seymour Hoffman who stole the show. His character was perfectly played and his emotional, rage-filled outbursts were perfectly-placed punctuation marks for the pent-up aggression displayed throughout the film.

Tabu

I think I would describe this film as a 'sleeper'. Not many people saw it, but it was a film that was full of charm and told an interesting, well-crafted story. Told in two halves, it showed off some beautiful cinematography and the opening scene with the camera spinning round the main character was beautiful. The quasi-silent, historical second half was a nice counterpoint to the modern first half the film.

The Turin Horse

The interminable passing of time…and that was just watching the film! Slow, methodical and two-and-a-half hours long, but never a wasted scene. Supposedly Tarr's final film, it was full of his trademark long takes and featured even less dialogue than usual, underlined with a simple repetitive score. It felt like he was describing the end of time, and the end of his film-making with one profound full-stop.


Other notable films

La Grande Illusion

I saw this when it was re-released at the BFI in London, and it was a real gem (Jean Gabin again). One of the most incredible films I saw this year, it was beautifully composed, funny, and way ahead of it's time for a film made in 1937. A true classic!

Incendies

This film did not get great reviews: many complaints about the “contrived and even bizarre final revelation…” (Peter Bradshaw, Guardian) but to be honest, I still enjoyed the film. Yes the ending was too strange to be true, but this is cinema…it's not real!

Moneyball

With a story written by Aaron Sorkin, I was expecting this to be good. And thankfully, it was. A good, fun story, with 1000 words per minute, and decent performances from Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Shadow Dancer

This film by James Marsh was premiered at the Belfast Film Festival. I didn't like it as much as others did, and the reviews I've seen since are positively glowing. That said, it was still a decent attempt in the 'Norn-Irish-film-about-The-Troubles' genre, though I felt it painted a slightly rosy picture of the situation, apart from it's mock-shock ending.

Skyfall

Bond is back! Was exactly what I expected, which is to say: mindless fun. Bond meets Bourne with some action-packed entertainment and the return of the DB5.

Ted

I'm a Family Guy fan, so this film was always going to make me laugh. I liked Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, and Seth Macfarlane was free to do all the stuff that was too rude for Family Guy! Easy watching, switch-off-your-brain fun.

The Third Man

I finally got round to seeing this and it went straight on to my non-existent list of favourite films! Welles was magnificent as Harry Lime and the photography was amazing: full of Dutch angles and a gleaming black and white print.

Tyrannosaur

Paddy Considine's brutal film was another cracker, and Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman starred. Eddie Marsan as the sadistic husband was also impressively horrible.


Worst films of 2012

Amongst all these 'favourite' films, why not a section for some of the most dreadful tripe I saw this year? Here are a few of the notable 'worst' films I saw this year…

Les Infideles

“The players”, to give it it's English title featured Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin. I can say little more than it was lousy…except to say, ridiculous. In many ways. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for it…

Sightseers

Billed as “Bold, and Blisteringly Funny” on the poster, the trailer for this was indeed quite funny. Unfortunately, the funny bits in the trailer were the only funny bits in the film. The rest was silly, contrived or just plain dull.

But the award for the worst film I saw this year goes to:

Elles

Such a shame that the usually-impressive Juliette Binoche was stifled by a rubbish story. Though she did her best to drag a good performance out of it, the film was genuinely awful and described by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian as “massively preposterous and supercilious” as well as “toe-curlingly predictable”. That just about sums it up.

 

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Belfast Film Festival Preview

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 28th May 2012 at 9:46 am

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The Belfast Film Festival kicks off later this week and in preparation, here are the films that I have booked to see along with a brief description from the festival’s website.

Good Vibrations

Terri Hooley is a radical, rebel and music-lover in 1970s Belfast when the bloody conflict known as the Troubles shuts down his city. As all his friends take sides and take up arms, Terri opens a record shop on the most bombed half-mile in Europe and calls it Good Vibrations. Through it he discovers a compelling voice of resistance in the city’s nascent underground punk scene. Galvanising the young musicians into action, he becomes the unlikely leader of a motley band of kids and punks who join him in his mission to create a new community, an alternative Ulster, to bring his city back to life.

Starring: Richard Dormer, Jodie Whittaker, Michael Colgan, Karl Johnson, With Liam Cunningham, Adrian Dunbar, Dylan Moran

Screenplay: Colin Carberry, Glenn Patterson

Producers: Chris Martin, Andrew Eaton, David Holmes.

BBC Films presents with the participation of Bord Scannán na hÉireann/IFB and Northern Ireland Screen. In association with Immaculate Conception Films a Canderblinks Film & Music, Revolution Films and Treasure Entertainment production.

Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn. United Kingdom / Ireland 2012, 102min 

The Verdict

Screening at Belfast’s Royal Courts of Justice. Introduced by a prominent member of the Northern Irish legal profession. 

In Sidney Lumet’s powerful courtroom drama Paul Newman stars as Frank Galvin, an alcoholic Boston lawyer who tries to redeem his personal and professional reputation by winning a difficult medical malpractice case. He is assisted by his new girlfriend, Laura (Charlotte Rampling),. Frank, down on his luck, is presented with the case of his life when he is approached by the family of a woman who has been left in a coma following an operation in a large hospital. Helped by his assistant Mickey (Jack Warden), he agrees to take the case, hoping for a fast settlement. When he visits the victim in the hospital, he becomes emotionally involved, turns down a sizable settlement offer made by the hospital, and decides to bring the case to trial despite the formidable opposition of the Church and their lawyer, (James Mason). Oscar-nominated for “Best Picture” and “Best Director” (Lumet) as well as for “Best Adapted Screenplay” (David Mamet).

Directed by Sidney Lumet. USA 1982, 129min

Woody Allen: A Documentary

Beginning with Allen’s childhood and his first professional gigs as a teen – furnishing jokes for comics and publicists – Woody Allen: A Documentary chronicles the trajectory and longevity of Allen’s career: from his work in the 1950s-60s as a TV scribe for Sid Caesar, standup comedian and frequent TV talk show guest, to a writer-director averaging one film-per-year for more than 40 years.

Exploring the ultimate “independent filmmaker’s” writing habits, directing, and relationship with his actors, acclaimed filmmaker Robert B. Weide travelled with Allen from the London set of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger to the Cannes premiere of Midnight in Paris. He also filmed Allen at home, in the editing room and touring his childhood haunts in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. New interviews provide insight and backstory, with actors Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Penelope Cruz, John Cusack, Larry David, Mariel Hemingway, Scarlett Johansson, Julie Kavner, Diane Keaton, Martin Landau, Chris Rock, Mira Sorvino, writing collaborators Marshall Brickman, Mickey Rose and Doug McGrath, longtime managers Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe, and Martin Scorsese, among many others.

Directed by Robert B. Weide. USA 2011, 92 mins

Come As You Are

Winner of two major awards at the Montréal World Film Festival, Come As You Are is an off-beat Belgian road movie about three young disabled men on a quest to lose their virginity. Jozef is nearly blind, Philip is a paraplegic, and Lars suffers from a disease that keeps him wheelchair-bound. These buddies enjoy the finer things in life, including wine and song; the only thing missing is the women. Isolated by their disabilities and cared for by their parents at home, they convince their families they need to go on a “wine tour” to Spain. But this is a cover for their true goal—a Spanish brothel, which Philip has heard caters to disabled men. Accompanied by a large woman caretaker named Claude who only speaks French, they take off in a beat-up van for the journey of a lifetime.

Never condescending and constantly unpredictable, this film provides a warm look at people whose bodies may not cooperate, but whose souls yearn to breathe free.

Directed by Geoffrey Enthoven. Belgium, 2011, 115min

Don Hertzfeldt

A special selection of cult animator and Academy Award nominee Don Hertzfeldt classic animated shorts, culminating in the exclusive premiere of his newest film, It’s such a beautiful day: the third and final chapter in a trilogy about a mysterious man named Bill.

Chapter One, Everything will be OK, won the Sundance Film Festival’s Jury Award in Short Filmmaking and was named by many critics as one of the ‘best films of 2007′. Chapter Two, I am so proud of you, received twenty-seven awards and was described by the San Francisco International Film Festival as, “[his] best yet… even the Hertzfeldt faithful may be too stunned to laugh.”

Nearly two years in the making, the 23-minute ‘It’s such a beautiful day’ is Don’s longest, and most ambitious, piece to date. Don Hertzfeldt is the creator of many short animated films, including the Academy-Award nominated Rejected. His animated films have received over 150 awards and have been presented around the world. He was the youngest director named in the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of The 100 Important Animation Directors of all time. In 2012, Hertzfeldt was ranked #16 in an animation industry and historian survey of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Animation.

Directed by Guillaume Canet. France 2011, 154min

Shadow Dancer

Even as a child, Collette was to experience at first hand the bloody consequences of the conflict in Northern Ireland when her little brother was killed by British security forces. Years later, Collette is herself now a mother and, like the rest of her family, still involved in the Republican cause. When she is arrested for her part in an aborted IRA bomb plot in London, a British secret service officer offers her a choice: lose everything including her little son and go to prison for twenty-five years or return to Belfast to spy on her own family. SHADOW DANCER is a psychological thriller in the truest sense of the term: it does not merely focus on the external elements of the plot; it also explores the moral dilemmas that face its protagonists. When the secret service man begins to worry about Collette’s safety she decides to feign interest in the agent – a duplicitous, risky game.

Director James Marsh depicts the conflict in Northern Ireland from the point of view of a woman whose daily life is a constant struggle for survival but who is nonetheless determined to create a better future for herself and her son.

Director James Marsh will introduce the film. Cast and crew will be in attendance.

Directed by James Marsh. UK / Ireland 2012, 101min

Witness For The Prosecution

Screening at Belfast’s Royal Courts of Justice.

Agatha Christie tale of a man on trial for murder: a trial featuring surprise after surprise.

Witness for the Prosecution casts the great scenery-chomper Charles Laughton in Agatha Christie’s courtroom play. Marlene Dietrich plays the wife of Tyrone Power, accused of killing an old lady for her money.

A delicious Billy Wilder mixture of humor, intrigue and melodrama, Witness for the Prosecution is distinguished by its hand-picked supporting cast and perfectly crafted dialogue. Wilder plays the suspense well, but this movie belongs to Laughton, who makes his every line resonate like music and thunder: “I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders”.

Directed by Billy Wilder. USA 1957, 116min

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Film Review: Le Quai des Brumes

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 21st May 2012 at 3:40 pm

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A film I saw recently at the BFI Southbank was Michel Carné’s 1938 film Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows).

Having seen a couple of French films from this period recently, I was expecting something enjoyable but fairly light and straightforward. Instead, the film was startlingly bleak, outright dark in places and understandably controversial given the time in which it was made (it was actually banned for some time in France).

Le Quai des Brumes

Le Quai des Brumes (1938, dir. Michel Carné)

More comprehensive reviews of the storyline are available here and here, but in short, a solider who has apparently deserted from the army appears en route to Le Havre, when he is spotted on the road by a passing driver. Once in Le Havre, he tries to flee the country on a boat bound for Venezuela, but he meets, and falls in love with a young girl, Nelly, whose torturous relationship with her guardian provides the main thrust of the film.

I was particularly impressed with Jean Gabin’s performance as the eponymous lead character. He was excellent in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, also recently shown at the BFI, but in Le Quai des Brumes, he leads the film almost by himself with a much more powerful role. Some of his scenes in the local shack/bar (called Panama) are brilliantly played and full of emotion but also perfectly natural. As part of a second plot-line in the film, there is also the slightly laughable appearance of the most unthreatening mobster in any film, in a story which proves central to the overall plot.

Interestingly, this review also draws parallels between Le Quai des Brumes and later Holywood films such as The Big Sleep and Casablanca, though this film is probably a bit more pessimistic throughout. It is also interesting to compare the similarities between the life in the town in this film and in Aki Kaurismaki’s recent film Le Havre.

Le Quai des Brumes was a thoroughly enjoyable film that was determined, dark and steered nicely away from the dreaded happy ending. I have also included links to some other reviews of the film below:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/may/03/quai-brumes-life-death-colonel-blimp

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/may/03/le-quai-de-brumes-review

http://www.close-upfilm.com/2012/05/le-quai-des-brumes-pg-close-up-film-review/

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The films of Federico Fellini

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 2nd May 2012 at 10:55 pm

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I have been doing some reading on Federico Fellini’s films tonight and wanted to share some interesting links that I have found.

First up is Strictly Film School which gives a few reviews including some interesting points made on La Strada, which I saw recently for the first time at Screen St Ives.  The religious metaphors are common themes in the Fellini films I have seen, and this post points out some of the more subtle points to pick up on in the imagery portrayed.  This story provides an extended essay on Fellini’s religious beliefs which will take some time to read fully, but it is clear that some of his early experiences with the church had a profound effect on his life and is therefore prominent in many of his films.

One thing I have thought about Fellini’s work in the past is backed up by this comprehensive analysis which says of the imagery used in his films:

…these spectacular images increasingly lacked artistic discipline as well as narrative connection.

This was evident, to a certain extent, in La Strada, where I often felt images were inserted to give an effect; I just wasn’t always sure what the effect was meant to be.

However, from what I understand, La Strada was not the worst offender in this respect. I have still to watch 8 1/2, but by all accounts this is Fellini’s most surreal work, with a storyline that is perhaps self-indulgent, and less constrained than some of his other works.

By far the most surreal of his films that I have seen is Amarcord.  An interesting analysis is given here which states that:

…[the film] seemed to practically have no existing plot – I could never fully understand exactly what was going on.

This is something I definitely agree with – I remember having to watch bits of the film again as it just didn’t make sense; it seemed to flit between classic Italian romantic cinema scenes to slapstick ‘Carry On-style’ comedy.

This is also something that has been discussed in regard to La Strada, including in the post-film discussion at Screen St Ives, and while I don’t think it applies to that film, I felt Amarcord truly did wander through Fellini’s imagination.  I don’t know how much of the film was improvised, but in an interview as part of Mark Cousins’ Story of Film, Claudia Cardinale makes the point that various scenes in 8 1/2 were improvised, and lines were made up by Fellini on-the-spot.

It is perhaps this kind of freedom and creativity which I have not yet got used to in Fellini’s work.  Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita are both excellent films and by far my favourites, but perhaps I need to try harder to understand his other films.

Thoughts and comments greatly appreciated below…

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Film Review: The Story of Film – An Odyssey

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 17th April 2012 at 9:32 pm

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I’m just back from hearing Mark Cousins discuss his latest cinematic masterpiece “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” at the QFT in Belfast.

The last time I heard Cousins was at a screening of his last documentary film “The First Movie” which I wrote about here.  This was part of the Belfast Film Festival, at which Cousins also spoke at a discussion on censorship in film.  Having heard him previously, I was delighted to hear that he was appearing in Belfast again.

The evening started with a screening of a much-abridged version of the film (for it is not a TV series!).  This picked out some of the highlights of the 15-hour work and was followed by a wonderful discussion, with Cousins being questioned by fellow Belfast filmmaker Brian Henry Martin and members of the audience.

Isn’t it great to listen to someone talk so passionately about what they do?  This is exactly what we were treated to tonight, with Cousins speaking eloquently about content of his work, the difficulties and logistics of travelling the globe to film the movie, finding funding, and interviewing the directors, producers and actors who contributed to the footage.

Mark Cousins in discussion with Brian Henry Martin at the QFT

Mark Cousins in discussion with Brian Henry Martin at the QFT

He spoke about the great films that many of us won’t ever see: from Iran, Japan and Eastern Europe, and also touched on his interesting belief that every nation lacks belief in their own body of film; while we are quick to point out that most of what emerges from America is not high quality material, he says that many people from other countries say the same about their own national work.

On the subject of “The Story of Film…”, it was interesting to hear his response to criticism about his narration style (which I thought was great, and reflected the passion with which he created the film). It seems the less-than-favourable reaction was considerably less pronounced outside the UK. Sad that this should detract attention from the content of the film itself, containing over 1000 clips showing the history of innovation in cinema, which as Sukhdev Sandhu sums up perfectly in a comprehensive review in the Telegraph:

In a television landscape that fears international cinema or any movie deemed challenging or original, this selection deserves to be celebrated.

Ultimately the most enjoyable thing about hearing Mark Cousins talk about his work is his infectious enthusiasm about film. You get the impression that he could talk for days on the subject and not repeat himself.  It was great to see so many people turn out to hear and meet a brilliant local filmmaker.  A great evening, and the DVD box-set is on pre-order…

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Film Review: January’s films

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 3rd February 2012 at 11:05 pm

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This is a summary of the films I saw in January. It has been a really good month for film viewing, largely helped by being on holiday for the first week and due to a free trial of Netflix via AppleTV. Anyway, here is a summary of what I’ve seen:
(more…)

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Favourite Films of 2011

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 2nd January 2012 at 11:40 am

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After much deliberation, here is a brief run down of my five top films from 2011. In no particular order:

The King’s Speech
A surprisingly entertaining film full of laugh-out-loud moments and swings of emotion.

Little White Lies
A nice film from one of my favourite actor/directors (Guillaume Canet). Had a real independent feel to it and a pleasant enough story.

Senna
A great documentary whether you are a Formula 1 fan or not.  Full of adrelalin, emotion and suspense mixed with genuine tragedy.

Treacle Jr
One of the standouts from this year’s Belfast Film Festival. Aidan Gillen gave a brilliant performance which is both fun and incredibly sad in parts.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
A great, slow, British(ish) film with another of my favourites, Gary Oldman playing the lead role of George Smiley.  An unexpected hit for me. (more…)

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Film essay

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 8th October 2010 at 1:11 pm

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As part of the film course I attend at the University, we were asked to write an essay entitled “A film/actor/director that changed my life for the better and forever”.  I have finally got around to putting my essay on my blog, so have a read and feel free to leave comments:
A few years ago I was shown a film by a former colleague which had a huge effect on my interest in cinema. Prior to this, I hadn’t taken too much notice of foreign-language films and would only infrequently venture to the cinema, usually to see the latest James Bond release or something similar. But when I saw this film, it inspired me to search for other films by the same director, which in turn has inspired me to watch things that previously I wouldn’t have dreamt of seeing. The film in question was Caché, by Austrian director Michael Haneke.
Although I could talk about Caché and how it changed my outlook on cinema as a medium, I want to go further than this and explain how it was an interest in Haneke himself that has sparked my real interest in films.
Firstly though: understanding why Caché struck a chord. For me, it told a complex story in a way that was not immediately clear or easy to understand. It became an enjoyable exercise in piecing together the various aspects of the story and I found it had an ability to be both touching and emotional, followed by a sudden change to suspense and shock. More importantly, it was the first film I had seen that did not resolve itself in a way I could have anticipated, and indeed most of the film, including the final scene posed more questions than it answered. What seemed at the outset to be a mysterious thriller about a family hounded by a stalker turned out to be something much more, with a lot of the film having to be pieced together and extrapolated; full of ‘what-ifs’.
Following Caché , I was inspired enough to see some of Haneke’s other works, and to date these include The Seventh Continent, Funny Games, Code Unknown and most recently The White Ribbon. What has become apparent in the majority of his films is, not just the strength of the narrative, which is usually captivating, but rather the reaction that the films provoke from the viewer.
The majority of reviews of Haneke’s films that I have read in the papers and websites seem to focus purely on the content of the films themselves; and thus they pick up on things like his use of graphic violence and exploitation. However, to focus on this alone is to miss the point of what he has set out to achieve; that is, the reason for having such scenes is to both provoke a reaction from the audience, and to provoke the viewer into examining this reaction and exploring what it means for them.
I have subsequently listened to some interviews with Haneke that are added to some of the DVD releases of his films, and he is clear to never admit what the ‘correct’ reaction should be to the films, or if there even is such a thing. He lets us make up our own mind about whether we should be shocked, angry, amused or fascinated and if different people have different thoughts, he seems happy with this outcome. He also likes to carry an audience along with him, quite happily following the story, only to abruptly stop (literally in the case of Funny Games) and make the audience aware of what they are watching and what they are feeling. It didn’t surprise me to read, in researching this essay that he studied philosophy at university and though he does not describe himself as a philosopher, I believe there are deep philosophical issues reflected in most of his work, in the style of a true auteur perhaps.
Funny Games in particular stands out as one of my favourite Haneke films, not just for the content, which in itself was terrifying and disturbing, but rather for the way in which the film openly showed us its ‘raison d’être'; when suddenly at a key point in the story, as the suspense is building to a climax, the main (unlikeable) character looks straight to the camera and talks to us directly – the viewer is suddenly aware that they are part of the story and are complicit in the actions we are seeing on screen. Similarly, when the main kidnapper is shot dead by one of his victims, we feel immense relief and are certainly glad that he is dead, only for the film to pause, rewind and re-tell the story in the ‘true’ way where he is not shot. This action of rewinding and replaying the action is enough to make us sharply aware of the reaction we just had to this moment of violence – in true thriller methodology we are pleased when the bad guy is killed, and this provides a stark moment of reflection on our views of violence in cinema as a whole. This sort of depth and detail in film-making is something I had never experienced before, and why I think it has sparked my interest so much.
This does not mean, and should not imply that I have some sort of gruesome fascination with violent films – I like a nice thoughtful story as much as the next person, but I have come to realise that what I personally want to see in cinema, and what it has taken me until now to find, are films that can maturely tackle challenging subjects and provoke some kind of reaction, positive or otherwise, from the audience. I think this is why I felt disenchanted with typical Hollywood cinema – too often the story asked nothing of the audience and they could sit through an entire film without thinking too hard as the plot was explained and resolved for them. It seems that in order to be successful in Hollywood terms a film must too often obey a standard genre format – the very antithesis of what Haneke’s films are about. As Wood (2009) says, “In an age of mindless blockbusters, [Haneke] has revived the prestige that arthouse cinema enjoyed in the 1960s”. However, this is probably a subject best developed in more detail elsewhere.
I am intrigued by some of the technical aspects Haneke uses in his work. Most are familiar from the Hitchcockian thriller genre: static shots, long takes, inferences or untold stories, and action happening off screen can be seen in many of his films. One scene that particularly comes to mind is the scene in Funny Games where the child has been murdered. The camera fixes on the room for an age with the only sound the breathing of the parents. This powerful scene serves to lengthen the discomfort and anticipation of what may follow.
Extending this theme of spectator discomfort further, most of Haneke’s films present some kind of ethical issue for us to examine, and like other thrillers, he likes us to empathise with the victims and despise the villains. But only up to a point. Haneke does not want his films to be as easy to understand as that and rarely presents a simple good-versus-bad story that we could all understand. Instead, rather than just present this narrative, the appeal lies in his desire to focus our attention more on the ethical relationship between the viewer and the film itself, and I am drawn back to the pause-rewind scene from Funny Games that I mentioned above. Film critics who focus solely on the ethical issues told in the narrative are missing this key point to his films.
I should also mention the fact that I don’t think every Haneke film I’ve seen is brilliant. Code Unknown remains a mystery to me, with its disconnected, long-take scenes seeming to leave me empty and lacking a meaning or compelling reason to bring them together. But I have heard other people hold it in high esteem so it will be watched again until sense is made of it.
In conclusion then, Michael Haneke’s films, although only introduced to me fairly recently, have sparked an interest in what cinema can really offer me as a viewer. Previously unaware of most foreign-language films I am now scrambling to make up lost ground. The joys of the film festival have been discovered both in Belfast and where I previously lived in Cambridge, and I now watch films with more than just a desire to be entertained with a shallow plot. Instead I have become fascinated by films that make me think: either about the challenging issues they discuss or, more subtly, by examination of the reaction I feel upon watching them.
Haneke has inspired me to watch films that are not always easy to find, not always easy to understand, but which reward those who go to the effort of watching them.

——— Bibliography ———

Cousins, M. “The story of film” Pavilion Books, 2004.

Frey, M. “A cinema of disturbance: the films of Michael Haneke in context” Senses of Cinema, Issue 28, 2003.

Wheatley, C. “Michael Haneke’s cinema : the ethic of the image” Berghahn Books, 2009.

Wood, G. “High points of the noughties”, Guardian: Reviews of the Decade, 2009.

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