Tag Archives: World Cinema

36th Cambridge Film Festival

 

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Fans of our recent 36th Cambridge Film Festival episode of the Failed Critics Podcast will be pleased to see that contributor Andrew Alcock has written down some of his thoughts on the cluster of world cinema that he managed to get his hands on during the UK’s longest running film festival. Starting with…


Wonderland
Wonderland

Wonderland (2015) – Switzerland

Ten young Swiss directors explore how society would react if their country was plunged into crisis. The crisis arises in the form of an ominous storm cloud which appears over central Switzerland. It quickly spreads until it covers the whole country, stopping exactly at the borders. Experts predict apocalyptic disaster, insurance companies panic, vital services collapse, electricity cuts out, the government re-opens WW2 bunkers, social disorder ensues. Some people try to flee, some hide, others try to ignore it.

The premise is very good, the dark clouds can be used as a metaphor for so many things and the directors have mainly gone in different directions. Some themes are obvious; immigration, xenophobia, power, wealth, the EU. Some are so subtle that I have to admit that I didn’t even spot them. Three or four of the stories add nothing to the film other than increasing the run time.

Had this been four or five perspectives with the directors collaborating so that the stories overlapped / characters interacted it could’ve been superb. Unfortunately, these are independent short films spliced together by an editor leaving your interest yo-yoing. The good stuff is good – at times very good – but overall I was left with a sense of frustration at a missed opportunity.


On the Other Side
On the Other Side

On The Other Side (2016) – Croatia

Vesna lives a content life in Zagreb. She works as a nurse and shares her home with a daughter whose wedding she is helping to plan. Her son and his wife have a house close by and Vesna often pops over to babysit her grandson. Her quiet existence receives a jolt when her estranged husband calls her out of the blue.

[I must point out that my knowledge of Eastern European conflicts, in particular the Croatian War Of Independence, is limited to what I could gather during the film and a bit of research since. I may have misinterpreted some things but I’ll explain as best I can.]

About 20 years prior to this phone call war broke out and split up Vesna’s family. Her husband, Zarko, is Serbian and heads off to fight for the Yugoslav/Serb forces against the Croats, leaving his Croatian wife and children behind. Not only do they have to live in a country at war but they are the family of a Serb, the enemy. The family soon move to Zagreb to start a new life, the Croats win their independence, Zarko is tried at The Hague on war crimes and no more is heard from him. Having reacted to the first call with dismay and anger Vesna receives more calls from Zarko. Over time she discovers he is back in Serbia and as they talk it brings back memories, both good and bad. Her son wants nothing to do with his father. Her daughter is more understanding but feels the legacy of Zarko’s actions when her applications to get a job in the law profession are rejected when the potential employers discover her family history.

Ksenija Marinkovic does a fine job as Vesna, portraying a woman who has horrific memories and is still seeing the effects of her husband’s choices on her children today but has reconnected with the man she loved. There’s a twist near the end of the film which I liked but really wanted more details of. I know what happened, I know who did what but I don’t know why. I’m not sure if it wasn’t explained or if I just didn’t pick up on it. That confusing end took the gloss of what was a very interesting and well-made film.


alba-cdt-stills-43-postalAlba (2016) – Ecuador

11-year-old Alba lives a very quiet life. Her mother has been unwell for some time. Almost entirely bed-ridden, a nurse comes in to wash her and change her clothes and Alba is able to help her to the bathroom and back to bed. Due to this Alba spends her time at home playing silently, allowing her mother to rest. This quietness continues at school where Alba is very reserved. She will sit with the other girls but rarely join in. Always reticent to speak. One night her mother takes a turn for the worse and is taken to hospital for ongoing treatment. This results in Alba being taken to stay with her dad, a man she has not seen since she was three. Her dad is used to a life of solitude, a man of few words. He does what he can to make her feel welcome but finds it hard talking to a child he barely knows.

There are long mute periods between the two, neither knowing what to say, any conversation they do manage consisting of a short question and reply. Alba switches school and her shyness again holds her back until she is approached by an older girl, Eva. They chat, Alba still not saying much, and Eva invites her to a party. Hearing of this the other girls at school try harder to engage with Alba whilst she tries to overcome her withdrawn nature.

The onset of puberty, awkwardness at living with her dad, her first kiss, truth or dare, the party and her mother’s illness all affect her as we see her slowly mature, becoming more confident, wrestling with her conscience whilst trying to be accepted. There’s a really nice scene where Alba and her dad go to the beach. Although they still don’t communicate verbally you can see they have accepted each other and enjoy their time together. Macarena Arias plays Alba wonderfully, displaying the difference between the introverted young girl at the beginning and the more self-assured character she becomes. I definitely recommend you give this a watch when it becomes available on whichever completely legal format you use for film viewing.


tel_0913790_s_01_xx_big_1Between Sea And Land (2016) – Colombia

Over-the-top melodrama. I could leave the review at that point and I think most readers would know whether they want to see this film or not. Many people enjoy this type of thing, I am not one of them. It follows the ‘person with debilitating illness tries to achieve goal with help of family and friends’ formula.

In this film:

Person = Alberto, a man in his twenties
Illness = a form of muscular dystrophy
Goal = experience the sea

To explain how disengaged I was from this film I will share a thought process I had upon seeing a shot which started above Alberto’s shack and pulled back directly upwards until there was a Google Maps-style shot: “I wonder how they got that shot. Perhaps a drone? Would a drone be able to carry a good enough camera to get such clarity? Might’ve had a built-in camera. Either way that’d be pricey. How much would the budget for a film like this be? Is the Colombian film industry particularly wealthy? Maybe it wasn’t a drone. Perhaps a crane? It would need to be a massive crane to pull back that high up and not have it in shot. Maybe they lowered something down and reversed the shot. No, that wouldn’t work, the waves would be going away from the shore…”


press__oneofus_victor_softgun-tif_One Of Us (2015) – Austria

A huge supermarket is the only thing of note in the hometown of 14-year-old Julian. So this is where he congregates with his mates. Sometimes going inside the shop, annoying the stuck-up manager. Often hanging about on the outskirts of the large compound, smoking, vandalising, chatting, messing about, doing whatever it takes to pass the time in their dead town. Michael, a kid a little older than Julian, is starting his career working in the supermarket. Despite not being overly enthused he does what he can to impress, performing his duties and trying to ignore the requests of local wannabe gangster, Sedler, to sneak things out. 16-year-old Marko is freshly out of prison, his first port of call upon his return to town is the supermarket. A reunion with his old mate Sedler soon follows as well as a meeting with Julian. As friendships grow, Julian tries harder to impress. During a night of smoking and drinking the decision to break in to the supermarket ends in tragedy.

I know I’ve not sold the film very well with that synopsis, it’s a tricky one to get across. At it’s heart is a very simple story of youngsters craving adventure, thrills and acceptance. Doing whatever they can to alleviate the monotony of life. The use of the supermarket is superb. Not only is it used symbolically, the most mundane of places seen as the beacon of excitement, but it is utilised visually throughout.

The straight lines of the regimented aisles, the gaudy, unnatural colours of the packaging all in blocks creating a rainbow effect, the bright artificial lighting. It all adds to create a surreal environment in contrast to the dull reality of the outside world. This is another I recommend you catch if you ever get the chance.

Failed Critics Podcast: 36th Cambridge Film Festival Special

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As the 36th Cambridge Film Festival nears its conclusion, we round-up and preview some of the best independent and international movies that you still have a chance to see!

In this episode, Owen Hughes guides you through our pick of the bunch as he’s joined by our world cinema experts Liam and Andy (who you may remember contributed to our World Cinema Special podcast back in January).

From Romanian and Greek, to Ecuadorian and Colombian films. From docu-dramas to short film compilations. On topics as diverse as incest and the Russian avant-garde movement. If you’re looking for a movie that’s just off the beaten track from the usual mainstream cinema, then we’ve got you covered.

In the podcast, we chat about:

Cloudy Sunday – Showing Wednesday 26th October, 4pm (Arts Picturehouse)
Next Generation Tiger Shorts 2016 – Wednesday 26th, 5.30pm (Cinemobile)
Wonderland – Wednesday 26th, 5.30pm (Arts Picturehouse)
Between Sea and Land – Wed 26th 8pm (Arts Picturehouse) & Thu 27th 12.45pm (cinemobile)
Alba – Thursday 27th, 5.30pm (Arts Picturehouse)
Illegitimate – Thursday 27th, 6.15pm (Arts Picturehouse)

Plus the Dutch Scottish drama Bodkin Ras, high-brow documentary Revolution – New Art for a New World, and Andy’s favourite from the festival, Austrian drama One of Us. All of which you’re too late to catch at the festival, but are worth digging out if you can find them!

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Failed Critics Podcast: World Cinema Special 2

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From quirky Bulgarian movies to Jordan’s Oscar nominations. From 1931 in Germany to 2013 in Hong Kong. From the poetic realism of France to the period dramas of Afghanistan. This week’s Failed Critics Podcast is taking a truly global slant.

We could think of no better guests for our second ever World Cinema Special than aficionados Monsieur Liam and Herr Andrew Alcock. Along with regular hosts Signore Steve Norman and Señor Owen Hughes, together the team take a look at films from all over the world in both What We’ve Been Watching and this week’s triple bill. The caveat this time is that the Failed Critics had to pick three films each from three different countries, with some surprising – and some not so surprising – choices from our crew!

Join us again next week as Steve and Owen are joined by Failed Critics founder, grandmaster, and all round spiritual leader, James Diamond, as we prepare to induct another great of cinema into our Corridor of Praise.

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Failed Critics Podcast: Ronaldo, World Cinema & Listener Questions

Nocturna

Bonjour, guten tag, konnichiwa, hola, namaste, aloha, salve, an-nyong, olá, goddag, ahalan, shalom, nei ho… and hello!

Welcome to this week’s Failed Critics Podcast as Owen and Steve take a break from reviewing new releases (sort of) to draft in special guests and world cinema aficionados (and podcast débutantes), Andy and Liam.

Whilst it may be the first time on Failed Critics for the cultured duo, this episode does see the return of a feature from earlier this year called ‘Listener Questions’. Through our Twitter and Facebook pages, we invited listeners and previous podcast guests to send in any question at all that they wanted to ask us – and they did! We’ve done our best to answer as many as we could but as ever, it’s all a bit shambolic from the get go!

There’s also reviews of some lesser known movies from around the world; from the Danish black comedy starring Mads Mikkelsen called Green Butchers, to the charming Spanish animation Nocturna, via a stop over in Romania for some tasteful holocaust comedy with Train of Life. We do manage to sneak in one quick new release review though as Steve reports back on sports documentary Ronaldo, executive produced by James Gay-Rees and Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy, etc).

Join us again next week for a Hunger Games special episode with guests Callum Petch and Chris Haigh! Who will survive?? (Hopefully everybody. It’s only a podcast.)

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The Raid 2 (Berandal)

Iko Uwais in The Raid 2The Raid 2 is a cut 20 minutes and tighter focus away from being near-perfect.

by Callum Petch

Well, holy crap.

Look, despite anything bad I have to say in this review, I loved The Raid 2.  I got out of the cinema last night extremely giddy at what I had witnessed.  Said feelings only grew the longer I stayed awake and they are still here the day after.  If anything, that film keeps rising in my estimations the more I think about it.  When it officially releases on April 18th, I will be going to see it again.  If it were in the cinema again before that date, I would drop everything and see it again.  It is, in a word, amazing.  Unfortunately, there are legitimate problems with The Raid 2 and I can’t switch off my critic hat to ignore them.  So, regardless of whatever negative words I attach to this gushing session, you should not let it get in the way of going to watch The Raid 2 the very second it drops.  Promise me that and I promise you that you won’t regret it.  It really is that good.

OK, now to get professional.  Real Talk: I was not a fan of The Raid.  Well, maybe that’s a poor way of phrasing it.  I thought it was alright.  The first half of the film was great, it was tense, exciting and a lot of fun.  Unfortunately, the film really ran out of steam by about the midway point.  It attempted to force in a plot that was immediately forgettable, slowed the pacing to a crawl and had a final fight scene that, whilst undeniably badass, went on for so long I could see the seasons change outside my window by the halfway point.  There was half of a great film there, and half of a dull slog weighing down the back end.

The Raid 2 does not have that pacing or interest problem.  Even with its much-publicised two and a half hour runtime, this is not a film that drags at any point.  OK, maybe the opening crams too much exposition into too long of a time frame before the real fun starts, but once it does start, the film knows how far apart each of those fight scenes should be.  It knows how to make the plot-oriented stretches of the film feel as propulsive as the rest of it so that, even though I was never 100% certain as to who everyone was and what was going on (more on that in a moment), I was still as enraptured by villains secretly scheming with one another as I was when a man’s face was being forcibly applied to a hibachi grill.  There are actual peaks and troughs, here, and the film wisely holds off pitching its action scenes to 11 until the final hour (save for an absolutely stunning prison riot at about the 25/30 minute mark) to keep that section of the film, the cathartic and climactic release, from feeling like an extended sequence of “been there, done that”.

That being said, The Raid 2 still does not need to be two and a half hours.  The scope is much wider, this time, more resembling a sprawling crime drama except that any and all problems are solved by extended bouts of extreme violence, but it’s a bit too wide for its own good.  Following straight on from the first film, Rama (Iko Uwais) is sent undercover in order to help root out corruption on the Indonesian police force by cosying up to Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo) who runs Jakarta’s biggest crime syndicate.  That goal, however, rarely comes up again and Rama himself spends most of the film being shoved to the side-lines as the slowly-becoming-more-disgruntled Uco finds himself tempted by another rising crime boss in the shape of Bejo (Alex Abbad) who is trying to raise his stature in the criminal underworld by stirring up trouble between Bangun’s group and a Japanese crime syndicate led by Goto.

Seem a little bit too muddled yet?  Well, throw in about another 10 or so characters, each with less of a personality than the last, all of them affiliated with one side in some way shape or form and some with full-on subplots of their of their own, and a whole bunch of betrayals and double-crosses and you have the plot of The Raid 2.  You can’t fault writer-director-editor Gareth Evans for trying to address the original’s lack of plot, but he’s honestly not there yet in terms of keeping everything coherent.  It’s a bit too wide-reaching, there are too many characters running about (as cool as every fight sequence involving them are, Bejo does not need three separate gimmick-based assassins doing his dirty work in-story) and the overall aim and direction becomes a bit muddled, especially for Rama.  The ending of the film does strongly tease a sequel (and Evans has stated he wants to make this series a trilogy), so maybe some of the bloat and needless character work in this film will pay off in two or three years’ time, and again it’s a testament to Evans’ growing skills as a filmmaker that I was always thoroughly engaged during the plot stretches, but I can’t help but wish it were 20 minutes shorter and tighter in its focus.

Because, and I mean this with total sincerity, if the story being told were clearer and the scope reigned in just a bit, The Raid 2 would be near-perfect.  In fact, let’s stop beating around the bush and just talk about the fight scenes, already.  They start with a group of about 50 prisoners all trying to bum-rush Rama who is sitting in a locked prison toilet stall.  That’s how they start and, by the end of the film, that one is positively small-scale.  However, although there are many scenes of one man fighting his way through a seemingly endless horde of metaphorical red-shirts, the film doesn’t just decide to start at, say, 9 and go higher from there.  There are just as many shorter fight scenes of one guy fighting his way through, say, four or five metaphorical red-shirts or a fight involving just two guys that’s over in seconds instead of minutes.  Again, it all comes back to the film’s airtight and propulsive pacing.  Evans and his fight choreographers (star Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian) know when to reign it in and when to go big, which makes the big moments that much bigger.

And of those big moments?  Let me put it this way, The Raid 2 will fill up all top three slots on your Best Action Scenes of 2014 list and they will stay there until the end of the year.  Seriously, they’re that good and it’s not just down to some stunning choreography, which manages to be showy yet relatively realistic with extremely fast exchanges of strikes and no shortage of painful-looking limb breakages.  Although he still employs shaky-cam at several points, Evans seems more confident in his fight work or direction in general, because most every fight is shot super clearly and shots last much longer than in Hollywood action films.  Not once did I lose track of who was hitting who, where they were in relation to the rest of the scene and what else was going on around them; there’s excellent scene geography going on here.

But that’s not to say that the camera isn’t getting in on the action.  In fact, the sheer dynamism of the camera is why I’m stunned at the fact that the scene geography is so well done.  During an extended prison riot, the camera rarely stays in one place for long, running all over the scene to keep an eye on what else is going on around the fringes.  Quick whip pans help keep up energy and camera shakes help sell some of the more painful collisions of heads with scenery.  Sometimes the camera is almost literally flung about the scene, too; a chase with an escaping gangster has the camera move with him so that it crashes through a window at the same time he does.  It’s kinetic, frenetic and masterfully done.  Also, it must be said, even outside of the fight scenes there are some gorgeously composed shots going on here.  Big credit should be given to the film’s cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, they knocked it out of the park, here.

Yet that is nothing compared to how this film sounds!  There is some exceptional sound work throughout this thing.  Every hit sounds like there’s real force in its delivery, every stab from a weapon sounds painful, every bone snapped is physically wince-worthy and every gunshot is a deafening roar.  The fight scenes are excellent as is, but the sound work creates fights that have real impact and that only adds to the effect.  As for the score, barring an absolutely killer end credits theme, its mostly content help drive the action.  It doesn’t particularly call attention to itself but it fits the events on screen brilliantly, often with nice thumping energy and good builds to natural crescendos.  It’s one of those scores that you can’t necessarily hum individual tunes for but, in the moment, you know that you’d rather have nothing else backing it.

Now a moment to address the violence.  Yes, The Raid 2 is exceedingly violent.  It is even more violent than the original and, yes, that is more than possible.  One of the film’s smaller-scale yet best fights involves a single mute deaf girl carving her through six guards on a subway train with only two claw hammers.  Baseball bats are brutally buried in people’s faces.  Throats are ripped or stabbed or gouged or many other rather horrible things I’d prefer not to think of.  Shotguns utterly demolish faces.  Hibachi grills burn off half off somebody’s face.  Blood flows like wine at a party where everybody is too smashed to hold their drinks properly.  It will be too much for many people and some will claim that it’s all too gratuitous and meaningless, due to their aforementioned lack of coherent plot issues.  And taken on its own, yeah, maybe the violence is too much.

But when combined with the choreography, the cinematography, the sound work and the pacing it serves a true purpose: to create fight scenes with real impact and thrills that are rarer in modern day action films than I’d like.  It’s visceral, it’s uncompromising, it’s 900 other clichéd words you’ve heard from pretty much every other reviewer on the planet by this point but it works.  It works.  I was wincing at the more painful moves, laughing at some of the pitch black humour that litters the film, silently begging them to use that thing that was lying about the scene and then cheering when they did, on the edge of my seat during some of the closer fights and gasping in amazement at certain violent flourishes or impressive moves.  So was everyone else in my screening.  The Raid 2 delivers thrills aplenty during every single one of its action sequences (without wishing to spoil, the action scenes are not just hand-to-hand fight after hand-to-hand fight).

It also, and this is how confident I am in my opinion here that I am willing to go on official record with this, has my favourite fight scene of all time.  In one absolutely heart-in-mouth beautiful sequence, everything in the film goes up to 12.  The choreography, the sound work, the score, the camerawork, the violence and the pacing all come together to create a piece of ridiculously exciting, jaw-dropping and all of the available words in a thesaurus that still don’t quite adequately get across just how f*cking awesome it is.  Wisely, the film saves it for the end and doesn’t even try to wrap up the plot with something close to its level and it absolutely justifies the ticket price and 2 hour build-up alone.  Holy crap.

So, as you may be able to tell, I loved The Raid 2.  It is not perfect, its plot is too convoluted, it has too many characters and strands that don’t go anywhere and it is 20 minutes too long by virtue of that too-wide scope, but I honestly don’t care.  I am still high off of the energy I got from seeing it nearly 24 hours ago as I type these words.  When it is on, almost nothing else comes close to the level that The Raid 2 is operating on and I order you to go and see it.  I don’t care if extreme violence turns you off of films, I don’t care that you don’t want to read subtitles and I don’t care that you’re not old enough or don’t have any money, right now.  I am ordering you to go and see The Raid 2 and to see it in cinemas.  So do so.

Callum Petch has an old head on young shoulders.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Around the World in 80 films: No. 3 – The Boss of it All (Denmark)

The Boss of it AllIn what appears to be quite a practical decision in terms of my cinematic journey around the globe, I have decided to hang out in Scandinavia a little longer and moved from Finland to Denmark. As well as being a relatively simple step in the physical plane of existence, it was also quite an easy choice for my next film, a 90 minute comedy described on the DVD case as being “like The Office directed by a mad genius”.

Hmmm.

Leaving aside the fact that I’m sure Ricky Gervais would probably tell that The Office actually was directed by a genius, the idea of a knockabout comedy directed by uber-nutjob auteur Lars von Trier intrigued me. Despite being seduced by the idea of the Dogme film movement, I have yet to find a von Trier film that I’ve actually enjoyed. The Idiots was bemusing, Antichrist was disturbing, and Melancholia was simply boring. Compared to his Dogme co-founder Thomas Vinterberg (director of the utterly brilliant Festen and The Hunt), I just struggle to see the big deal about mad old Lars.

And sadly, The Boss of it All hasn’t really changed much.

The premise is a promising one, so much so that Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz has apparently signed on to direct an American remake. The film focusses on a small IT company which is preparing to be bought out by a large Icelandic firm. However, the owner of the firm (Ravn, played by Peter Gantzler) has created a mythical ‘boss of it all’ to take the flak for all the unpopular decisions, while taking credit for anything that pleases the staff. When the potential buyer refuses to deal with a ‘stooge’, Ravn hires an overthinking and enthusiastic actor (Krisstoffer, played by Jens Albinus) to play the part of the Boss. As Krisstoffer delves deeper into his role he starts questioning his motivations, and taking increasingly erratic decisions affecting the staff and the sale.

It’s certainly my favourite von Trier so far, and some scenes are both inspired and hilarious. The trouble is that the director obviously can’t allow himself to make a simple comedy, and so gimmicks and Brechtian constructs soon get in the way of what is a rather simple narrative with a lot of promise. Just when we’re getting into the story, an unknown narrator informs the audience that due to the generic conventions of comedy we are about to introduce a surprise character to add conflict. At other times we go ten or fifteen minutes without even an attempt at a joke. It appears as though The Boss of it All would rather be clever than funny.

The other bizarre thing about the film are the number of jolting jump cut and some odd choices of framing. It turns out that von Trier was using a system called Automavision, which allows the director to choose a fixed camera position, and then a computer chooses when to pan, tilt, zoon, or cut. It’s an interesting experiment, but one that ultimately alienates the audience further from the film.

It’s not often I say this, but I’m looking forward to the American remake.

Around the World in 80 Films: The journey begins

American Hustle: Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper walking in streetAnother year, another set of good intentions. It’s the same every January, as well as my vague declarations to “start jogging again” and “cut out crap food”, I always head into movie awards season with a new set of film resolutions. Even the creation of this website was the result of a festive spirit fuelled desire to better myself through the education of film.

Although I mentioned on the Failed Critic Podcast Review of 2013 that my resolution was to watch more silent films (and that is something I need to do), it was while browsing my Letterboxd review of the year I realised how  little ‘world cinema’ I had seen in those 12 months. Although two of my top five of the year were foreign language films (including my film of the year The Act of Killing), only 30 out of the 231 films I watched weren’t in English.

So this year’s challenge is to emulate my great childhood hero Willy Fog (I’ve seen the cartoon series, but never read Jules Verne’s novel) and travel around the world in eighty films. My only rule is that I can’t include films I’ve already seen, and although the first twenty or so look easy enough, I’m definitely going to need some help and recommendations from people reading the site and listening to the podcast.

So starting as I hope to go on, here’s a double bill.

No.1 American Hustle (USA)

I know this looks like I’m cheating, but the United States of America is a country after all, and I’m not inclined to make things more difficult than they already are. Plus, how could I not start this challenge with a film that perfectly encapsulates its country of origin; it even says the name in the title!

American Hustle is a film based on the true story of an FBI investigation into corruption that snared some senior US politicians at the tail end of the 1970s. What makes the story worthy of cinematic adaptation is that the FBI recruited a small-time couple of con artists to orchestrate the deceit. It’s a film about the American Dream, post-Nixon politics, and the glitz and glamour of a decade that has been dusted off and put on a pedestal by a number of film-makers recently, most notably Ben Affleck’s Argo, and Ron Howard’s Rush.

The talent on show is the current cream of the American acting community, including Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., and a small cameo from Robert De Niro. Token Brit Christian Bale might as well be American by now, having portrayed one of America’s most popular cultural icons (Batman) and one of its most iconoclastic literary creations (American Psycho). In fact, I’m struggling to remember the last time I heard him with a British accent.

Director David O. Russell is one of the most feted of recent US directors, and with good reason. His latest film features his trademark focus on characters over plot, and he is obviously someone who gets the best out of his performers. What’s different from previous films is that he is wearing his influences on his sleeve, specifically Martin Scorsese and Goodfellas.

While some have complained that the story is slightly too long, or predictable, I have now seen this film twice and can’t agree with either criticism. For a film that was improvised at some key points, the main narrative holds together pretty well under close scrutiny. What makes this a great film for me is the performances, especially in the funnier scenes featuring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. While it may not be quite the timeless classic that it is pilfering from, it is still one of the best films I’m likely to see in 2014.

No.2 Leningrad Cowboys Go America (Finland)

The second film in my odyssey has been sat on my shelf as part of a box set for over two years. One of the earlier films from Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki, it tells the story of the fictional (but subsequently very real) Siberian punk band Leningrad Cowbows and their attempts to crack America after a local mogul tells them that Americans will “buy anything”. The resulting film is a road movie following the band (all kitted out with two foot long winklepinkers and quiffs of a similar length) as they make their way across America in an old Cadillac (sold to them by Jim Jarmusch in a fun cameo).

It’s an odd film, but very funny. The band’s manager Vlad is a wonderfully deadpan presence, and the band grow increasingly tired of his orders and the fact that he has a constant supply of cold beers that he has stashed in the cabinet holding their frozen bass player. As I said, it’s very odd.

The only Kaurismäki film I’d seen before this was 2012’s Le Havre, which has a similar feel to its central performances that, while not entirely cold, are far from the realist cinema we’re used to in mainstream Western Cinema. I could draw a definite line between the films of Stanley Kubrick, with their emotional coldness and static camera shots, and the films of Wes Anderson, particularly the quirky characters and bizarre onscreen behaviour that we see in this film. I’m now very much looking forward to the sequel Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses, and the concert film Total Balalaika Show.

Right, on with the journey. Why couldn’t Jules Verne have gone with 50 days?

Failed Critics Podcast: American Hustle…David O. Russell. You gotta have a system.

American Hustle: Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper walking in streetHappy New Year to you all, and in an effort to stick to some hastily made resolutions about getting rid of the fat, the first Failed Critics podcast of the year is lean, mean, and looking forward to McQueen (next week’s big review is 12 Years a Slave).

This week’s chat sees the gents discuss the finer elements of the Oscar Foreign Language shortlist, as well as review new releases American Hustle and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. James also gets around to reviewing Anchorman 2, Owen takes us on a journey through South Korean cinema, and Steve is aiming to beat the bookies with his Oscar race tips/blind guesses (delete as appropriate).

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Speaking in Tongues – the Foreign Language Oscar longlist

The GrandmasterThe Internet is often accused of shining too much light upon magic. No longer do blokes down the pub chat about the match without somebody flinging out their black mirror to quote every OPTA stat like an autistic vidiprinter. Stumbling over a potential classic read in a bookstore has become something of a minority interest sport, not just because bookstores are closing at a rate comparable to Working Men’s Clubs, but one quick scan of Goodreads gives you enough crib notes to appear as the most well-read member of your book club. With amateur YouTube accounts and news aggregator sites such as BuzzFeed and Cracked reducing everything from current affairs to album released into bite-sized cue cards, it’s little wonder that the pervasive opinion is that of the facilitation of diluted information somewhat reduces the anticipation, excitement and general thrill of how things used to be.

Partial credit for that view, as the drawing back of the curtain made possible by the Internet does have its positives points. What used to seem mysterious or oblique, such as the drawing up of nominated people in various award ceremonies, has become broadly open and available for comment. The ‘longlist’, so rarely mentioned before the expectation of transparency brought about by the Internet, is now part and parcel of the bauble giving process. No more is such openness exciting and, just perhaps, symbolic of the ‘window of the world’ ideal of on-line life, than the longlist for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (more correctly labelled by the august gentlefolk at BAFTA as ‘Film not in the English Langugae’, but who am I to suggest that our American cousins have an unfortunately skewed opinion of ‘foreign’.)

This year nine films from over seventy submissions have been put on the initial longlist, and I have endeavoured to find at least a trailer somewhere for a select few to chin-stroke for your delectation. In the spirit of the New Year, I will hand over to other Failed Critics to consider  those I have missed from both the longlist and unsuccessful others, out of a duty to be fair, and because I hope somebody else can stomach watching the entry from Thailand. No, I’m not doing it, watching it for research purposes was quite enough. Ask James. [I just watched it. Bloody hell. Do not click HERE – James]

From Bosnia-Herzegovina comes ‘An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker’ (‘Epizoda u životu berača željeza’). Low on laughs, this one. Director Danis Tanović explores what he considers to be the ‘omnipresent’ injustice in a country many years removed from the devastating civil war of the 1990s. A woman, Senad, falls ill during pregnancy, but has no means of paying for treatment when the child she is carrying dies. The trailer is unremittingly bleak. I recall watching Bosnia’s winning submission ‘No Man’s Land’ some years ago (it beat ‘Amélie’), so I know that their cinema has a somewhat downbeat side, and who could blame them? Stark and courageous as this clearly is, I think it’s not one for me to settle down of an evening to watch.

Similarly serious is the entry perhaps best known in the UK thanks to much broader distribution rights, Denmark‘s ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jagten’). This claustrophobic tale of mass hysteria in a small village beats particularly relevant drums in this country due to the ongoing concerns about paedophilia in the media and the well-known mob justice attacks on innocent people (including a disabled Iranian man earlier this year, and the infamous attack of a paediatrician.) As many fans of Nordic Noir will attest, ‘The Hunt’ speaks of shadow and light as close partners. It’s been a good time to be a Danish screenwriter, with ‘A Royal Affair’ making similar waves last year. The trailer for ‘The Hunt’ in its native language does look so much like ‘The Killing’, I’m just saddened by the lack of chunky knit jumpers.

I was taken aback by just how unexpectedly lovely ‘The Missing Picture’ looks. Already awarded the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, the third ever submission from Cambodia could well be the kind of film the Academy award themselves. Looking at the atrocities from the country’s dark past through a mix of animation and filmed segments, ‘The Missing Picture’  looks to be as much docu-drama as film, and is none the less compelling for that. The entire film can be found, without subtitles, on YouTube. From what I saw, this brave and moving piece would be a humbling and informative film and perhaps a companion piece to ‘The Art of Killing’, although not perhaps on the same night, or if you’re prone to emotional outbursts.

Hong Kong has made the longlist with ‘The Grandmaster’ (‘一代宗師’), a retelling of the story of Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man. It is the first submission from the former British colony to make the January cut-off since 1993, and I can see why it’s been picked up for wider release. Slick, dark and beautiful in ways only East Asian martial arts films can pull off properly, ‘The Grandmaster’ is also notable for including scenes unique to whichever of the three edits you happen to find (original, European release and world-wide version). It could well follow in the ‘Crouching Tiger…’ tradition by crossing over into cult status if the mood is right, and I see no reasons why this isn’t possible.

These four take only but a sliver from the full seventy-odd entries from countries as diverse as Nepal, Italy and even The United Kingdom. I’ll await the results of the Academy’s considerations with interest. It’s worth the light being shone upon the world sometimes.

Failed Critics Podcast: World Cinema Special!

No, this guy doesn't count
No, this guy doesn’t count

Bonjour, hola, guten tag, and konnichiwa to the Failed Critics World Cinema Special. This week the critics (well, most of them) take you through some of their favourite elements of film filmed in something other than English, as well as exploring some new avenues themselves.

In What We’ve Been Watching they review films from a country they haven’t experienced cinematically before, with choices from Israel, Brazil, and Quebec, while this week’s Triple Bill is ‘Favourite World Cinema Actors/Actresses’. We round off the podcast with some recommendations from some of our favourite countries.

Join us next week as we review Alpha Papa, Only God Forgives, and The Conjuring.

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A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2002

A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.

As this is podcaster Gerry’s idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. Here he gives us his top five from 2002 – be sure to check out the entries for 2001 and 2000 if you haven’t already done so. We’d love to hear your thoughts on these so please get in touch with a comment or on twitter.

5. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

the-lord-of-the-rings-the-two-towers-large-pictureI think we might have made a mistake leaving the Shire, Pippin.

The first was a towering achievement of storytelling and fantasy narrative brought to life on screen; the follow-up continued that great work and showed a generation of film fans and aspiring film-makers what epic productions are like. With more action than its predecessor, The Two Towers stepped up the cinematic intensity and silenced criticisms from some corners that the films were long and boring. Jackson builds steadily towards a triumphant final hour centred around the battle at Helm’s Deep, a battle scene which absolutely captivated my imagination as a 13 year old watching this in the cinema. I have, of course, since seen many epic films with epic battle sequences but this film is often a benchmark to compare them with. Podcast listeners will know I moaned about The Hobbit recently but as you may guess from this series, I bloody love TLOTR trilogy, and a decade on The Two Towers remains a staggering achievement, a lesson to us all on how to do exciting fantasy drama on a massive scale.

4. Spirited Away

spirited-away-large-picture-1Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember. 

Studio Ghibli films are widely regarded by cine-literate people as outstanding. Yet the majority of the population seem blissfully unaware of their work. Spirited Away is much like their other films – it gets to the heart of childhood and imagination, transporting us forward into a hitherto unseen world of the creator’s making while simultaneously catapulting the viewer back to their own youth, that sense that magic lurked so close that a wrong turn could mean you winding up in a vastly different reality to your own. That is precisely what happens in this film. Chihiro’s family end up getting lost and wandering into an abandoned theme park – her greedy parents eating the tempting food left seemingly unattended and, of course, being transformed into pigs. Fans of Disney and particularly Pixar will find much to love in this classic animation, both in thematic content and the rich visuals our senses are practically assaulted with from the word go. I don’t think it quite matches up to My Neighbour Totoro or Grave of the Fireflies (note to Matt Lambourne – they’d better be 1 and 2 for 1988) but nonetheless, this is better than 90% of the kids films you will ever see – whether you’re a nostalgic adult or a child who hasn’t yet lost that wonder at the potential marvels of the world around them. [I’ve included this for 2002 as it was released in Japan in 2001, film festivals around the world in 2002 and in the UK in 2003, making 2002 the middle ground in such a confusing and drawn out release schedule]

3. Punch-Drunk Love

punch drunk love adam sandlerI have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.

I’m not going to lie to you – I only watched this film about a month ago. I absolutely loved it. No, in fact, I fell in love with it. A mild introduction to art-house cinema for the uninitiated (or soft-core art house if you like), Punch-Drunk Love is a quirky tale featuring Adam Sandler as a possibly autistic, possibly partially psychotic entrepeneur who falls for slightly-less-odd Emily Watson.  Despite the backdrop of constant belittlement from his seven sisters, their romantic journey begins, alongside Sandler’s efforts to disentangle himself from a scam he fell into by ringing a phone sex line to chat about his life. It sounds weird and it is a bit, but if you doubt Sandler’s credentials for this then you’ve obviously never listened to Mark Kermode before. Literally the only downside to watching this film is that you will now be even more annoyed by the constant stream of utter shit Sandler is churning out these days when he is capable not only of genuinely funny films like Happy Gilmore but also excellent serious acting performances like he puts in here. Psst Adam, here’s a hint – make more films with people like Paul Thomas Anderson and less with Dennis Dugan and you might be ok.

2. City of God

city-of-godYou need more than guts to be a good gangster. You need ideas. 

A gripping tale of corruption, poverty and crime in the underbelly of Rio de Janeiro, City of God did wonders for Brazilian cinema. I actually studied a module on Brazilian cinema in University purely based on the fact that in doing so I could watch City of God again and find out the context behind it. For all the complex and important social issues it explores, City of God has a fairly standard cinematic trope at its core: two boys grow up in the same place, take different paths in the face of external pressures, yet their lives always seem to be intertwined and meet with dramatic consequences. Famed for its use of first-time actors taken from the streets of the favelas themselves (even including the mother of one of the real-life criminals depicted in the film), there is a brutal realism to Cidade de Deus that some viewers may find unpalatable. In my view it is that harsh realism which makes the film so powerful and for it to be viewed as anything other than a strength is missing the point entirely. This war between drug lords really happened. It wasn’t nice. With brilliant cinematography that captures the lo-fi 70s vibe of the time whilst still producing stunning visuals and some iconic shots, it is no wonder that the film remains one of the most successful and well-known films in ‘world cinema’ to UK viewers. Fernando Meirelles hasn’t made the move to Hollywood big-shot as many predicted but is trying to make himself the Brazilian Almodóvar. Speaking of my mate Pedro…

1. Talk to Her

On the face of it, Hable con Ella is a pretty odd film. It centres on the solitude and inner turmoil of two men who bond over the beds of the female coma victims who they care for, the gradual entanglement of their lives – whilst in parallel the events leading up to the film’s present are slowly unravelled in flashbacks. There is a quiet power to the film which draws the viewer into this world so deeply that it is impossible to forget. Essentially, old Pedro tests how far he can push an audience (again), this time in terms of how much you’re willing to forgive because you like someone. I often say this about foreign films on the podcast but THIS IS WHAT CINEMA IS ABOUT. Tremendous performances, a director whose vision is so clear and whose skill is so well-developed that they are able to interweave symbolism and narrative to devastating effect, a story which engages throughout and an exploration of wider themes and societal issues without being preachy or ever failing to entertain.

Like all of his films are to some extent, at heart this is an exploration of gender roles. We have the two male leads crying over a performance at the ballet; a female bullfighter who is harsh and masculine, while her boyfriend is vulnerable and openly emotional; a male nurse; and a now infamous scene from the film-within-the-film which seems outrageously shocking, but is in fact less shocking than what it masks. There are a number of genuinely haunting scenes in Talk to Her, precisely because we are drawn into the drama so powerfully by the cast and crew. Javier Cámara and Darío Grandinetti are mesmerising. Almodóvar was under some serious pressure after the global success of All About My Mother and this was what he came up with.

In my opinion it’s his finest work – in a catalogue of films that most people in Hollywood would be proud to have in their DVD collection, let alone make. This is cinema. This is art without being arty or pretentious. This is a film about humanity, morality, imperfection, societal conditioning, sex, solitude, normality, mental illness… There is a disturbing, unsettling effect as you question your morality and precisely why you feel sympathy or empathy at certain points. It pushes you to think outside normality and ask questions of yourself and the world because it has engrossed you so totally and manipulated you so delicately. That, for me, is what cinema is.

Euro Stars

oscarsI’m watching a film trailer for a 2012 release longlisted for an Academy Award, and from what I can gather this is the kind of film which would ordinarily do well with those who hand out the statuettes every spring. Unusually for a film which could be sharing the stage amongst the biggest superstars in Hollywood, there’s very little coverage out there in English, although twelve people have provided ratings for it on IMDB. The trailer suggests this is classic Hollywood territory: girl goes off the rails, is knocked up, kicked about, falls pregnant and then is laughed at by a woman with large glasses and wide gums. Oh, and she speaks in Kyrgyz and the film only has Russian subtitles.  That aside, it’s your typical mainstream storyline transferred to very atypical surroundings.

Whether the good folk of Kyrgyzstan had their hopes of Oscar glory with Пустой дом” (“Pustoy Dom” or “The Empty House”) is anyone’s guess, but even if they did have their collective fingers crossed, the Academy shortlist released this week dashed those hopes in one whoosh of a fax machine. A record seventy-one submissions for “Best Film in A Foreign Langauge” were received this year of which just nine were chosen as potential winners. These nine, including some of the most well regarded critics’ favourites of the year such as the devastatingly beautiful “Amour” and lavish “A Royal Affair, will be whittled down to five next month, a final figure which has been the only constant in the ‘Foreign Films’ category since the very first was handed out in the 1950s.

What strikes me about the class of 2013 is another common theme they have with their predecessors over the years. They are predominately European, and West European at that, and even those which don’t come from our continental neighbours fail to provide much of an exploration of world cinema. Canada’s submission this year, for example, is the sixth to make at least the shortlist in the last seven years.  Whilst France, perennial nominees with this being their sixth in the last decade, is a country you’d expect to see in the mix or thereabouts, this year sees the first ever shortlist inclusion for Chile. Now I’m no expert in Chilean cinema,  so maybe everything thus far submitted has been awful, but the law of averages suggests that to be unlikely. For the record, I’ve watched the trailer for their entry No, and whilst the deliberate use of outdated video stock is a bit glaring, it looks like an engrossing and madcap political drama, with the added bonus of a staring role for the ever dashing “Amores Perros” star Gael García Bernal.

Here’s the number crunching science part. This year seven of the 71 shortlisted entries are from Western Europe, last year it was six from 63, the year before four from 66, whilst for 2010 it was six out of 67. If I go back to the year of my birth, four of the five final nominees were Western European, with Japan making up the fifth, and there’s a country which is not a stranger to being amongst the possible winners. However you look at it, the most basic conclusion is either the basic fact that European cinema is intrinsically better than anywhere else, or the Academy has a blindspot-cum-love affair with the industry as an institution. Have they been in a spell since the days of Fellini or is there something more sinister going on? I don’t often fling around the accusation of imperialism, though when there’s an award specifically designed to celebrate non-American cinema it does strike an odd note that so much of it originates from developed, Western countries.

Another fact which strikes me as incongruous is the lack of recognition for perhaps the most prolific film producing country in the world; India. There’s been no shortlisted entry from India for twelve years, and before that it was 1988, a year when I was just about to start revising for my GCSEs. As with the Kyrgyzstan entry I checked out earlier, I’ve no doubt that the film was well regarded within its home market, so unless Bollywood is deliberately barring submissions from established directors I’ve no idea why there’s such an obvious snub. That said, I have to point this year’s Indian submission, “Barfi!, is one of the highest-grossing Bollywood movies of all time, even though its synopsis doesn’t sound like my kind of thing – deaf and dumb man has relationship with two women, one of whom is autistic, and if you want to know if there’s a happy ending don’t scroll down too quickly on Wikipedia….

Economic power house China has yet to win an Oscar and has once again failed to be nominated this year. I found a trailer with English subtitles for 搜索 (or “Sōusuǒ“, released with the English name “Caught in the Web”) and to be honest it seems to be part-pot boiling nonsense and part Chinese propaganda against the Internet, but that doesn’t mean every other entry they’ve tried is without greater merit. It was through Taiwan/Republic of China that the exceptional “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” was submitted in the year 2000, and of course it won, though it’s worth pointing out that even then the majority of nominees were European – and one of those was from Belgium. Belgium!

Maybe I’m being naive and a little idealistic. Looking at this from the other side, could it just be that European cinema is better, broader, more mature and accessible to the jury? Could it be that the ideal of the award is to celebrate a good film rather than opening doors to the world of developing cinema? After all this is the Academy Awards and not a Sight & Sound Festival, and since the year 2000 the winners have included Iran’s “A Separation” and South Africa’s “Tsotsi“. If there’s a undeniable bias it’s towards drama and particularly morality tale drama, rich in the kind of lessons which could be lip service to liberal critics. What it could have been is an opportunity to taste cinema from different palates and with over 70% of Oscar winners coming from Europe, I’m not getting out my best plate and cutlery yet.

 

Liam Pennington is at the action side of 30 years old and is the On-Line Editor for High Voltage. When not making good use of PR companies’ guff, he can be found groundhopping, writing for whoever else wants him, singing along to Eurovision records and sitting through arthouse films at Cornerhouse, Manchester.

@doktorb
www.liampennington.blogspot.com