Notes From The Cinema

explorations through the world of film

A Beautiful, Tragic Bridge and Italy

The Great Beauty

Re-invigorated now that my target of watching 365 films in one year is back in sight, I started off the weekend with quite a dark collection of films:

104.) The Bridge (documentary, 2007), directed by Eric Steel.
I have been wanting to see this film for several years to see how the filmmaker handled not only the delicate subject of suicide but also the controversial decision to film it. In 2004 the filmmaker Eric Steel set up several cameras along the Golden Gate Bridge to capture what became over 20 suicides in the course of that year. He then interwove this footage with interviews – with the families of the deceased as well as with people who witnessed the jumps. Although as a filmmaker I wouldn’t have been able to stand by a camera waiting for people to jump I did find the finished piece to be a moving portrait of mental illness and the lives of those it affects, especially when it touches on the heart-breaking reality that sometimes all the love in the world doesn’t help. Most compelling was the account of a young man with bipolar disorder who realised halfway through the approximate 7 second fall that he didn’t want to die and willed himself a different fate.

When the film was released the authorities who granted Steel permission to film were furious when they realised what he had really intended:

http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/matier-ross/article/Film-captures-suicides-on-Golden-Gate-Bridge-3313450.php

More suicides have happened from the Golden Gate Bridge than from anywhere else in the world. One woman – who flew from Houston to attempt to end her life here – said this was the case because of the Bridge’s accessibility but I wonder if it also has something to do with the sheer beauty from its platform. Recently a safety net has been approved which will be finished by 2018: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-28061544

I watched The Bridge on UK Netflix but discovered it also lives on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iqovaEP5h8

105.) Purple Noon, 1960, directed by René Clément.
Although this film launched Alain Delon’s career I found that I preferred the re-make, most likely because it stars Philip Seymour Hoffman. Purple Noon is currently on UK Mubi.

106.) Luisa is not Home (short narrative, 2012) directed by Celia Rico Clavellino
This well-received short is also currently on UK Mubi. The simple story of an elderly woman and her relationship with her husband and her washing machine. Beautifully shot. The trailer is here: https://vimeo.com/46173846

107.) The Great Beauty (2013), directed by Paolo Sorrentino
The perfect example of where I loved all parts of this film but didn’t walk away loving the whole. For me The Great Beauty is a deserving descendant of Fellini but without the innocence. Is it worth 142 minutes of your life? Absolutely. The cinematography is beautiful if not at times deliriously over-the-top. The camera slides through the city and slices through lives. And some of the images – for instance, of knife throwing, of a Botox clinic, of a giraffe in Central Rome, of a nun on the border of sainthood crawling on her hands and knees – will stay with you for a long time. Sorrentino has said that many American and British misinterpreted this film as an enviable fantasy and not a portrait of the horrors of Italy under Berlusconi: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/sorrentino-cinematographer-calls-film-school-725220

108.) The Social Network (2010) directed by David Fincher.
I know many who saw this film simply because it was David Fincher’s. And I avoided it for so long because of a disinterest in the beginnings of Facebook and of Mark Zuckerberg. But the acting is superb and the story surprisingly compelling which provoked a big post-film conversation about Intellectual Property and ambition.

109.) Pompeii: Life & Death In A Roman Town, presented by Mary Beard.
Following a recent trip to Naples and Pompeii this became necessary viewing.
Now on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnIY6AE4m6E

110.) The Other Pompeii: Life & Death in Herculaneum, presented by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
Also on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_wfTPdp3_k

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Windsor Makes Me Feel At Home

As I stood with my hand clenching the stanchion inside the London tube after an early evening of salted peanuts and cosmopolitans, the supportive friend across from me said:

“Let’s face it, I thought this was a bad idea from the start!”

We were discussing how I could spin the story of my impending failure, that after vowing – publicly! – to watch 365 films this year, having now only clocked a mere 103, I was staring defeat squarely in the face.

“But I did finish 4 short films in the last 4 months!” I said, building my defense, brick by lonely brick.

My supportive friend made a (bad) joke about moral fibre.

My anxiety worsened. It was mid-throat level now. I should not have abandoned my home projector for a Hollywood-inspired evening in The Criterion in Piccadilly Circus.

But then there was that moment that can only come while in the depths of true despair. I realised that if I were to get extremely technical, all was not lost. I remembered just then that the date of my first blog post about this cinematic adventure was 29 March 2014.

Which meant there were still 4 more months to recover my dream!

I’ll still have to carefully negotiate the eternal tension between watching life and living it, but it’s been an insightful if not bumpy process so far.

In this last batch of films I have learned that:

My tolerance for Hollywood romantic comedies is now at near zero. Even when in the mood for a “light” film on a trans-Atlantic flight these still cannot hold my attention. A film with a vomit scene will generally not be good. And finally, when I see the Windsor font come on screen at the beginning of a Woody Allen film, I feel incredibly nostalgic, and at home.

Without further ado, my latest adventures on screen:

84.) Moon directed by Duncan Jones

85.) Zero Theorem by Terry Gilliam

86.) Funny People directed by Judd Apatow

87.) Finding Vivian Maier directed by John Maloof and Charles Siskel

88.) The Other Woman directed by Nick Cassavetes

89.) Like Father, Like Son directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

90.) Magic In The Moonlight directed by Woody Allen

91.) Casa Grande by Fellipe Barbosa

92.) Laura by Fellipe Barbosa

93.) Love Is All You Need by Susanne Bier

94.) A Late Quartet directed by Yaron Zilberman

95.) The Notorious Bettie Page by Mary Harron

96.) Manhattan by Woody Allen

97.) 2001 Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick

98.) Bobby Fischer Against The World directed by Liz Garbus

99.) Guilty Pleasures directed by Julie Moggan

100.) Corridor 8 directed by Boris Despodov

101.) Thanks For Sharing directed by Stuart Blumberg

102.) We Steal Secrets directed by Alex Gibney

103.) Dallas Buyer’s Club directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Back On Track

In the past month making films has interfered with watching them, but that for sure is nothing to complain about! After a research trip to Miami, a shoot in Copenhagen, the distractions of pre-production on a docu-drama filming in less than two weeks, and the post-production of a short documentary constructed of only social media data, it’s no wonder it’s been more than a month since my last update. 

The fun in this journey has come from finding those unexpected films – either from word of mouth, You Tube, Google searching, or, in what happens to be the case for me a lot of the time, film posters! However, the fact that I have watched 83 films of my 365 yearly goal is making me nervous enough to consider a more methodical approach which may need to be employed. And soon! 

Before I give you my latest film update I wanted to mention one unexpected encounter this week with Sergey, a Kazakh chemist, who showed me a Soviet TV series on You Tube, with English subtitles, which he has not watched once, but four times. I cannot wait to begin it myself. 

Films 69, 70, 71, 72, 73 – History of the World with Andrew Marr, episodes 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. I am watching this BBC series as part of research. And despite the occasional line of narration that makes you want to plug your ears: For instance, in reference to John Wilkes Booth, “He was about to make one last appearance and he knew the reviews were going to be mixed,” the film does give you nuggets of history that makes you want to find out more than what this sweeping history series can offer. 

74.) The Ivory Tower by Andrew Rossi – A documentary by the same director who made Inside The New York Times. An issue close to my heart – the more than 1 trillion dollars young Americans owe in student loans – and a very interesting film. Not sure when it will have distribution in the U.K. but keep an eye open for it. 

75.) 20 Feet From Stardom by Morgan Neville – The first film I watched on the plane on the way back to London. This documentary won the Oscar this year and I was curious to see what it was all about. The film is about back-up singers and they are all great characters, but the film struggled to compete cinematically with The Act Of Killing, the film it beat out for the Academy Award. 

76.) Labor Day by Jason Reitman – This film first came onto my radar when I saw its poster at the local cinema and finally got to see it when I was trapped on a plane. Kate Winslet is superb and the film is full of suspense which makes the film engrossing for its audience. 

77.) The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson. Another film I watched on the plane from D.C. to London earlier this month. I love Wes Anderson’s vision but less so his films. To be fair I did actually doze off for about 10 minutes in the middle, only to be woken by what I think is a phenomenal soundtrack. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H22fZWySJ50)  I’d like to give this film another go when on solid ground, and reach the end of my list? 

78.) Buried in Burma directed by Mark Mannucci. I worked on this documentary film when the American director and crew shot in the UK last year. Nearly finished, this unbelievable film will hopefully reach audiences quite soon. 

79.) Boyhood by Richard Linklater. I wanted to love this film – a remarkable film achievement and I can never take my eyes off Patricia Arquette – but even though I am not someone who demands fast-paced action in a film, I did wonder what was really going to happen besides the growing up. I also find myself putting up an emotional wall when watching fictional portrayals of dysfunctional, lower middle classes American families on screen. There was nothing in this film that opened my eyes to things I hadn’t seen or heard before, both on and off screen. 

80.) The Human Face presented by John Cleese, BBC documentary from 2001. Episode 1. While researching a project about facial expressions I was led to this documentary which you can find on You Tube. It’s dated (Elizabeth Hurley has a cameo as a scientist) but still interesting. 

81.) Populaire directed by Régis Roinsard. I found this film by its trailer on You Tube and it now happily lives on Netflix. Set in late 1950s France, the film is light and entertaining even though I didn’t entirely understand the motivations of the main male character. But the costumes and sets are to die for. 

82.) Monty Python Live! – You might call my childhood disadvantaged for its lack of Monty Python and it’s one thing that I’ve been struggling to set straight in my adult life, and an almost-British adult at that. I know this isn’t a film per se, but since I didn’t score tickets to the live event at the O2 I did dutifully sit for 3.5 hours in a Picturehouse cinema the next day to watch the proceedings. A lot of fun despite being distracted by images of what the call sheet for that production must have looked like. Not to mention the budget! Those poor producers are probably still in recovery mode, hopefully on a beach. 

83.) Birdmen: The Original Dream of Flight directed by Matt Sheridan. This appears to have been a TV doc which I was led to on Netflix after discussing the latest airplane disasters and my fear of flying generally. A good doc I suppose if you are into adventure sports, but it left me bored and sounding very much like a producer and/or funder when I kept asking:  Where’s The Story?!

One Massive Sheffield Wrap-Up

One thing I learned from the film festivals I’ve attended in the last few years is to always trust your instincts. Which is more difficult than it sounds when there is interesting programming from 10 am into the late evening. But by sticking to what instantly appealed all in all I didn’t do too badly and I was able to add another 11 films to this year’s list!

Warning: This is a long post, probably only tolerated with a coffee, tea and/or chocolate. . . 

58.) Pulp: A film about Life, Death and Supermarkets directed by Florian Habicht (2014). What a way to open a festival in Sheffield! The film’s narrative leads up to the last appearance of the band in their native city, interspersing vignettes which feature people of Sheffield talking about their love of the band. I think I’d have liked this film more if I were a Pulp fan – in fact, at the height of their popularity, the band passed me by while I was studying away in some upstate New York library. But never mind, Jarvis Cocker is indeed entertaining to watch – especially when he talks about how odd it will be when old people of the future will recall Reel 2 Real’s “I Like To Move It, Move It” versus”The Lambeth’s Walk” as the music of their generation.  Pulp: A film about Life, Death and Supermarkets is a great insight into how and why the band tapped into the zeitgeist of its time, especially for a foreigner like me.

59.) Happiness directed by Thomas Balmes (2013) – From the director of Babies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkytlvAEE2k) comes Happiness, a film set in Bhutan which opens with the country’s ruler announcing the opening of Bhutan to internet and television one decade ago. What follows is the story of how one television set eventually makes its way to a tiny village, with the help of a young boy who had been sent away to a monastery after his father died of a heart attack upon encountering a bear. Happiness is a beautifully shot film, and one with its own rhythm that you either settle into or you don’t. When the filmmaker introduced the film I got the sense that he wanted his audience to judge whether television would bring happiness to these small villages, but for me that was not the point of the film. What was more interesting was watching the villagers interact with the outside world through a small screen, having to find their bearings for the first time as to whether what they were watching was “real” or not. The film ends with a striking montage of villagers watching television, with the TV set out of sight and only the different colours of its transmission flashing across their faces.

Masterclass with the British filmmaker Olly Lambert (http://www.ollylambert.com/) whose breakthrough film was “4 Weeks To Find A Girlfriend” – Okay, this was not an actual film but worth mentioning for its insight into his filmmaking process. In looking over the notes I scribbled down in the near-dark during this session it’s hard to organise them in a way that makes the most sense so I’m afraid they will have to simply be transcribed from my notes.  Olly talked about “voice” (he doesn’t think he has one) versus “sensibility” and how he likes to have the subject dictate the style of the film. In fact Olly said that whenever he finishes a project he wants his next one to be something totally different.

Showing clips from a few of his films Olly talked about how “bringing a circus” into someone’s living room as opposed to going in by yourself can add a formality to the whole process that makes the people you are interviewing feel as though they are being listened to, that someone cares enough to take their testimony seriously. It creates a space in which people can perhaps say things they may never have said before.

He also said he is more drawn to characters than the filmmaking. For him his work is all about the personal enquiry and he feels that when a filmmaker does not have a personal enquiry, then they are just making content – in fact I think he went so far as to say that without the personal enquiry the filmmaker is just making crap!  What struck me in his session was how long and arduous his pre-production process is as Olly spends a lot of time doing screen tests on people who may (or may not) be in his films. Olly also believes that as the filmmaker it is really important to understand why the person wants to be in the film.

In terms of story Olly said you must be clear that you understand the story versus the plot of your film. (The plot is just a sequence of events). And that you need to know what the film is about? And then what it is REALLY about. He also had a great line about the length of a film: “I’ve seen a 2 minute film that’s too long and a 90 minute film that’s too short.” I love that.

Now back to the films…

60.) 1971 directed by Johanna Hamilton (2014). This film tells the story of the very lo-tech break-in of the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971 (the burglars simply looked up the closest FBI office in their phone book). A retrospective story told very well with drama reconstructions that I felt worked! The film brought together the burglars who had not been in touch for decades. I found it interesting to hear the motivations of ordinary people (Pennsylvanians no less!) who felt they had to do something even if it meant putting their families at risk.

61.) We Are Many directed by Amir Amirani (2014). This documentary, about the largest, global anti-war march on February 15th 2003 and the race to war which carried on regardless, had an outstanding reception at Sheffield. The film has an amazing number of interviews – from Tony Benn to Damon Albarn – and archive and takes the audience from being absolutely depressed (having to hear Bush say once again: “My fellow Americans, Let’s Roll!”) to leaving the cinema with the hope that the protest may not have been in vain after all.

62.) 112 Weddings directed by Doug Block (2014). This was my absolute favourite film of the festival and can now be seen in UK cinemas (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4A07vLA-dI&feature=kp). The filmmaker Doug Block returns to some of the couples whose weddings he’s filmed over the last 20 years (to supplement his income as a bona fide documentary filmmaker) and talks to them about what it takes to stay married. I quickly stopped counting how many times I heard “that’s when the shit hit the fan” and settled on a favourite line which came from a rabbi: “Weddings are easy to make happy. You just throw a ton of money and liquor at them!” Need I say more about this film? A must see!

63.) Web Junkie directed by Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam (2014). This documentary was absolutely captivating not only for its story but as a window into China. Parents drug their kids or kidnap them while sleeping to send them off to an internet boot camp for 3 months where they forced to detox from video games (interestingly all the kids in the films are boys). These kids are playing games 10 hours a day and sometimes wearing diapers so they are not inconvenienced by bathroom breaks. But what I found more interesting was the way the kids are treated in the rehab and how they relate to their parents. In one scene, the hospital’s psychologist demands when the parents are reunited with their kids: “Parents, hug your children!” At one point there is talk of how having no siblings and having parents who focus only on their child’s grades has created a loneliness that can only be diminished by a fervent online life. This was my second favourite documentary of this year’s festival and the trailer is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NdkapFLgcY.

64.) Night Will Fall directed by André Singer (2014). This film within a film tells the story of how a 1945 film about the liberation of the camps never got made after the British and American governments withdrew their support. Interweaving this story with testimonies of people who were there at the liberation, the film is a powerful insight into the end of the war.

65.) Regarding Susan Sontag directed by Nancy Kates (2014). I was surprised by this film which I thought told well the story of Sontag’s life using photographs, archive and interviews.

66.) The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine (2013). This film tells an interesting story of a couple who settled on an uninhabited Galapagos island  in the 1930s to pursue their version of Eden. But it wasn’t long before other people came too, and then… trouble! Despite the overwhelming amount of access they had to archival material, I wondered if the film would have made a better novel?

67.) E-Team directed by Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny (2014). With amazing access to the places and characters, this documentary gives a fascinating insight into Human Rights Watch’s Emergency Response teams (or “E-teams”) in Syria, Kosovo and Libya.

68.) PilgrIMAGE directed by Peter Wintonick and Mira Burt-Wintonick (2008). This documentary is a father-daughter road trip made by the late and very talented Peter Wintonick with his daughter Mira. Though interesting in terms of facts and trivia of past great filmmakers – from Chaplin to Fellini – I left this film early! The film is sweet and a great tribute to both Wintonicks and their relationship with each other yet I couldn’t get past what I found to be too teacherly of a tone.

I’m hoping that by the 1st of July I can get myself to at least the 100 mark…

 

Marina Abramović Made Me Cry (and I’m not the only one)

It’s been a long time.

And I’m not just referring to the time that has elapsed since I last posted on this blog. It’s been a long time since a film has made me cry. And what was so great about spontaneously sobbing in the middle of Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present is that it took me totally by surprise. So often I feel like when a film is tugging at my heart strings with tragic circumstances and big swells of music, my heart just won’t budge. So I was extremely happy to find out that I can still be completely reduced, emotionally. By a film.

I won’t spoil anything about what I found so intense about The Artist Is Present except to say that it was the most moving Acts of Forgiveness I remember seeing on screen. At least that is how I interpreted what it was that affected me so deeply. For those of you wanting to follow up the reference in my title as to who else Marina Abramović made cry, you can look here .

This week I undertook a research project about the on-screen portrayals of women artists which means that I have watched a few films on my list more than once. But I won’t count those as having been viewed twice. I’m not desperate yet. Besides tomorrow I am off to Sheffield for the annual DocFest and late June brings a rendezvous with Virgin’s in-flight entertainment centre on my way to D.C., Pennsylvania, New York, Miami, and back again.

Without further ado here is my last batch of (more than) 10 films:

46.) Cavalry, directed by John Michael McDonagh – Amazing landscapes and acting, but the emotional impact of the film was lost on me. I wondered if I was just tired and distracted when I went into the cinema but my friend who was with me agreed. Was it because we weren’t Irish? Did we not get all of the Christian symbolism? My only theory is that the film sat so completely between a comedy and a drama that when the final blow came (and in my opinion it was far too graphic), I was not in the right mood to feel it. I’d give this film another shot though, when I’ve made a little more progress on the long list of films awaiting me!

47.) Before Midnight, directed by Richard Linklater – This was a film I had to see (on the basis of loving Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) even though I did not have high expectations for it. And unfortunately the film did not surprise me. It was as bland as I had expected with an ending that prompted my friend and I to simultaneously look at one another and ask What?! Yes, the previous two films primarily featured the same two lovers walking through cities but they were far more engaging. I was only left to ask: Does marriage in middle age have to be so dull?

48.) Synecdoche, directed by Charlie Kaufman – Another fantastic Charlie Kaufman world peppered with a good dose of surrealism and some of my favourite actors – Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Catherine Keener, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

49.) Connected: An Autobiography about Love, Death and Technology, directed by Tiffany Shlain – I had neither heard of this film nor the director before it caught my eye on Netflix. But as it turns out Shlain is the woman who invented the Webby Awards. The film uses her father Leonard Shlain (author of some interesting books now on my reading list) who is dying of brain cancer as its narrative anchor. And it works. A lovely essay film that blends science, psychology and personal experience, the film examines the blessing and the curse of today’s interconnectedness. An interesting and easy film watch especially if you are interested in a creative use of graphics.

50.) Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, directed by Jeffrey Dupre and Matthew Akers – see above.

51.) Gattaca, directed by Andrew Niccol, 1997 – Great cast in this old sci-fi film but with too much music. Solid story yet it felt like one element was missing to allow me to completely buy into the world it created. Still highly recommended and stars a young Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman.

52, 53, 54.) Andrew Marr’s History of the World (first three episodes) – Bland and sweeping BBC series which is good for discovering nuggets that you can investigate further. Reminds me of a college survey history book which definitely has its uses!

55.) Camille Claudel, directed by Bruno Nuytten, 1988 –  Worth every minute of its 2.5 hours and not just for the performance from a young Isabella Adjani. Intense telling of the sculptor’s tragic story. Am now keen to hunt down the more recent film adaptation of her life starring Juliette Binoche.

56.) Séraphine, directed by Martin Provost, (2009) – Gorgeously shot film about Séraphine Louis, a painter in the “naive style” in France who started to achieve recognition just before the First War.

57.) Artemisia, directed by Agnès Merlet – a controversial but beautiful retelling of the first woman painter of note in Europe.

Now off to pack my Sheffield Survival Kit. Stay tuned from news of the films there . . .

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