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Ian Briggs » review

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 Books of 2011

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 2nd January 2012 at 1:42 pm

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Following on from my previous post on my favourite films of the year, here is a list of the favourite books I read in 2011…never thought I would ever compile such a list! (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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Our weekend away

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 27th September 2010 at 8:05 am

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , | No comments

This weekend we have been over in Cambridge, primarily for the final weekend of the Cambridge film festival.

From the glimpse we got it seems to have been a huge success and proved as popular as ever. It is a shame that the festival organisers have lost funding from the principal sponsor but thankfully it didn’t change this year’s festival and hopefully won’t affect next year’s either.

We saw three films this weekend: ‘The Butcher’s Son’ which was set in the Dominician Republic and was an interesting story told in a nice way with some lovely visual shots. Some moments were a bit clichéed including the ending which felt like it was there just to round things off nicely, but overall it was a solid film.

‘Chico and Rita’ was the surprise screening and although I wouldn’t say I am a fan of animated films, this one was fantastic. It didn’t take long before the strength of the story made you forget it was animated at all (even though visually it looked stunning), and a phenomenally good jazz/Cuban score kept the pace up throughout. It seemed to be well received and it was worth us travelling over just to see it!

‘Made in Dagenham’ was the closing film and although expectations were low, it proved to be a fun film with a few good laugh-out-loud moments. It had all the things you would expect in a feel-good, rousing British film but benefitted from some great performances from Bob Hoskins and Sally Hawkins. There was also an interesting Q&A with the producer and screenwriter at the end.

So now we have our final day in Cambridge before heading back to the airport to fly home. We did manage to head round the city for a bit on Sunday morning to try to take some pictures. We managed to get an hour or two in before the weather defeated us, so I’ll update the photos section of my blog when I get them uploaded.

Until next time…

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

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Film Review: No-one Knows About Persian Cats

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 6th May 2010 at 3:31 pm

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This Iranian film about setting up an indie rock band in the face of oppression and censorship was one that we hoped to see at the film festival but missed. Thankfully it was shown again this week and I can see why I have heard many people recently say that Iranian films are some of the best non-English language films out there.

It follows two young musicians Nagar and Ashkan and their would-be agent Nader (who was undoubtedly the best character in the film – think Jack Black in High Fidelity but with even more energy).  They try to set up a band and dream of leaving Iran to play gigs throughout Europe and desperately try to obtain false passports, visas and permits (on the friendliest of Black Markets) that would allow them to perform.

As the film reaches it’s climax the plan begins to unravel as their passport ‘fixer’ is arrested. This starts a chain of events that leads to a wonderfully unexpected Romeo and Juliet ending.

A beautiful and trendy score includes everything from indie rock to heavy metal to blues to trance and even a pretty good rap sequence, and provides a stunning narrative throughout the story, which itself is told in the most natural way with some excellent performances from the actors themselves.

I thought this was an excellent film that, throughout, lifts the spirits with its musical performances and moments of comedy only for them to be dramatically shattered in the final few moments.

No-one Knows About Persian Cats (2009): 5/5

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Film Review: The First Movie

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 4th May 2010 at 2:31 pm

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This incredibly powerful documentary by Belfast director Mark Cousins had an experimental feel to it. He took some hand-held video cameras to a small village in Iraq and handed them out to some of the young children to let them film their lives.

What followed was full of brilliant imagery and emotional story telling from the children themselves, focusing on their surroundings and stories from their imaginations, which prompts Cousins to reflect on his own upbringing in Belfast.

The director said in a post-show Q&A session that he needed to prove his cinematography skills in order to secure funding, and the result is some of the very best cinematography I have ever seen – long panoramic shots, close images of wildlife, and one particular scene involving the children playing with balloons were stunningly good cinema.

The film ultimately tries to tell us how film can influence and change lives, and it was an emotional and incredibly inspirational piece of film that deserves wider distribution.

This was the final film we saw at the Belfast Film Festival and what a way to end. It has been a brilliant two weeks and we have seen some fantastic films and listened to some interesting discussions. Hopefully the success of this year’s festival will lead to an even bigger event next year. In the meantime, the QFT is showing some of the festival films again over the next month or two so I may update my blog in the future with some other reviews.

The First Movie (2009): 5/5

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Film Review: The Battle of Algiers

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 4th May 2010 at 2:27 pm

Categories: Films | Tags: , , , | 2 comments

Set in Algiers between 1954 and 1960, this film tells of the struggle of the Algerian people to retake their city from the French colonials.

Having never seen it before, I didn’t go in to it with any real preconceptions, but it didn’t take long before I was hooked in to the drama that unfolded in an edge-of-the-seat kind of way.  The black & white format in which it was filmed only added to this.

Particularly pleasing were the musical motifs used to identify characters and stories through the film, and they were even used to highlight the differences in fighting methods between the Algerians and the French.

But perhaps the best thing about the film was the determination of the director to tell the story in a completely neutral way – the stories told were equally passionate and even-handed on both sides.

This film stands as a great piece of history – both in a political and film sense, that is as relevant today in all parts of the world as it was when it was made.

The Battle of Algiers (1966): 5/5

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Film Review: Double Take

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 27th April 2010 at 1:25 pm

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A difficult film to review here as right from the outset it doesn’t fit into a particular genre that well – it could just as easily be classed as a documentary, as it could a political thriller.

While there were many enjoyable moments, it seemed to strike an uneasy balance between providing lessons on history, paranoia, fear and politics; focusing particularly on the space race and the politics-of-fear culture present through the Cold War. For me it felt a little too pointed and even pretentious trying to draw parallels between Hitchcock’s fear of his double and the various pairings it drew attention to, including Nixon and Khrushchev.

Some amusing moments were created through the use of coffee adverts, though I’m still not sure if that was the intended reaction, and also Hitchcock’s introductions and apparent dislike (even fear) of television as a medium provided some light relief from the full-on political nature that the film developed.

I came out feeling that if I knew more Hitchcock films it would probably have helped; ‘The Birds’ provides the basis on which the story is built throughout along with multiple short clips from some of his other films. That said, it didn’t lose my attention even though I wasn’t familiar with all the quotes.

Without wishing to be particularly damning, I think it is well worth another view (if only to try and spot more of the references) but on an initial viewing left me feeling a bit dazed and confused as to what the film was trying to tell us, except that it was unmistakeably an odd and even slightly disturbing film about Hitchcock.

Double Take (2009): 3/5

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Film Review: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Posted by: Ian Briggs on 23rd April 2010 at 11:58 am

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Not knowing what to expect from this film, I was pleasantly pleased with what it turned out to be.

Filmed in 4:3 and black-and-white on a handheld camera, from the outset it had a feeling of a 1940’s musical – the score sounding brilliant and with periods of tap dance and beautiful, short songs in between the fairly sparse dialogue.

The musical scenes presented an intimate setting in various clubs and recording situations with trumpeter Guy and his small jazz ensemble playing some nice swinging tunes – again, complementing the period feel of the film.

As Guy descends into self-obsessed longing for his lost love, Madeline, his smoky music brilliantly echoes his feelings as does Madeline with her melancholic songs filled with desperatation as she tries to look on the bright side.

A simple story but lifted into a different class with a stunning orchestral soundtrack and jazzy interludes, it proved that modern films can still be full of moments reminiscent of the Fred and Ginger classics, mixed with a bit of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker of course.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009): 4/5

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