Monthly Archives: January 2011

Black Swan (US 2010)

Natalie Portman as Nina

Darren Aronofsky’s film seems to have caused quite a stir, dividing critics but, in the UK at least, drawing in large audiences. In some ways its reception resembles that of Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Certainly, Black Swan seems to draw on some very obvious sources. Powell & Pressburger is again a major source – The Red Shoes of course, but also Black Narcissus and Tales of Hoffman (even possibly Gone to Earth). Then there’s the Polanski of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant meeting Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Brian de Palma (Carrie, Sisters) – and more, I’m sure.

I’m surprised that critics as knowledgeable as Philip French should get hung up on the plausibility of the plot. Black Swan signalled horror/melodrama to me from the get-go. Camerawork, music and production design all contribute to the delirious world of Natalie Portman’s (Nina’s) ballerina. Aronofsky introduces her descent into hysteria/schizophrenia gradually and I suspect that a second and third viewing will show just how carefully this has been organised. At the beginning of the film, there is almost a procedural structure to the process of introducing us to the ballet world and the crucial period when the company must manage the change from one principal ballerina to her successor. This is shown in parallel with the personal life of the main character – the new prima ballerina, Nina. She is shown invariably in pink with a dominating mother, usually dressed in black. Nina (the name has associations with ‘child’) seems like a little girl who is still trapped in childhood – surrounded by her stuffed toys in a kind of nursery space. Like Carrie in Stephen King’s tale the repression of her sexuality sublimated by a drive for ‘perfection’ makes her a powder keg primed to explode.

I can see that audiences without knowledge of Aronofsky might expect either a procedural melodrama around the workings of the company or a drama about the emergence of a new ‘swan’ in the form of Nina (because of course the ballet in which she will star is Swan Lake). But Aronofsky gives clues very quickly that neither of these will be the main interest of the film.

Let me count the ways. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique gives us ‘unsettling’ from the start. The handheld work covering Nina’s journey between her room, the subway and the rehearsal rooms is claustrophobic – she never seems to escape the runs (rather like those designed for laboratory mice). Within the rehearsal rooms and her twin ‘chambers’ (her bedroom and dressing room) Libatique makes good use of the mirrors of all kinds which are essential to the hard surfaces of the production design. Libatique has worked on most of Aronofsky’s films and he has also been Spike Lee’s cinematographer on recent films. He’s a New Yorker who somehow here seems to have captured the city without actually showing very much of it. During the dance sequences the camera stays with the dancers rather than offering us the conventional viewpoint of the theatre audience. This still allows a sensational sequence at the climax of the film in the dance of the Black Swan.

Production design by Thérèse DePrez (another crew member with a long history of American Independent credits) focuses on a stark colour divide – pinks and light blues for Nina’s room, black and white for virtually everything else but with blood splashing and oozing across all. I was particularly taken by the apartment to which Thomas Leroy takes Nina. It’s worth pointing out that most (all) of what we see is associated with Nina’s viewpoint – and this includes Leroy. More on this in a moment. The use of mirrors and mirrored surfaces in the design is matched by the clever near subliminal glimpses of the faces of other characters that Nina sees superimposed on her own reflections or on the faces of others.

Music is essential in expressionist cinema and when the entire narrative is built around the romantic music of Tchaikovsky, the director is being given a head start. Clint Mansell is another Aronofsky regular and I was interested to see that he had re-arranged the ballet score with Matt Dunkley and a large music department. I’m going to need several viewings/listenings (and some guidance) to work out how the music is being used.

Cassel dominates Portman

Finally (for the moment), the actors. Most of the attention has been, deservedly, on Natalie Portman. She is a very beautiful young woman, offered at one point a form of close-up where she lies in a foetal position along the breadth of the CinemaScope screen – for some reason I thought of Bardot in Le Mépris. The focus is on her body constantly – on the real and imagined damage done to it by the stresses of dancing. There is also a focus on the bodies of the other dancers and their teachers (many of whom are indeed professional ballet dancers). This is fascinating, though personally I find the disparity between the beautiful muscled legs and the scrawny upper arms of the ballerinas in close-up very unsettling. I had an urge to put a cloak around Ms Portman’s shoulders and take her out for a good meal. The film needs a strong male lead and I think Vincent Cassel is outstanding. He isn’t asked to do a great deal and much of the time he just stands or sits and looks, occasionally barking orders. I really enjoyed peering at his craggy face which seems to be developing very nicely into that of a great character star – I remember thinking how he reminded me of a young Jean Gabin or Michel Simon in all those mirror-preening shots in La haine. The physical shock of seeing a child-like Nina cowering before the power of Cassel as he loomed over her was riveting.

I found the film engrossing and satisfying. I love this kind of thing and I’m seriously considering a quick burst of Suspiria to remind me of how far Aronofsky might have gone. In the year of The Social Network and The King’s Speech, it’s good to know that films like Black Swan and Winter’s Bone are flying the flag for the expressionist genres.

I’d like to embed some clips, but YouTube is not playing ball, so you’ll have to watch them on the YouTube site:

Here’s the opening from Suspiria:

an extract from The Red Shoes ballet sequence:

and Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus (showing what lipstick and a red dress can do for a repressed nun):

and a trailer for Black Swan that we can watch here:

Monsters (UK 2010)

Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Sam (Whitney Able) as the couple in Monsters.

Monsters is an important film for several reasons. The most obvious observation is that it proves that you can make a convincing genre film with impressive CGI for under $500,000 (or even much less according to some reports). There has never been better evidence of the possibilities for filmmakers who understand how to get the best from relatively inexpensive equipment and how to conceive a viable production idea with only two professional actors and a basic script.

Following other British films by first-time directors, such as Skeletons and Moon, Monsters also demonstrates that despite the thousands of words on the fragile state of British filmmaking, there are still new talents to watch. Writer-director Gareth Edwards previously worked in TV, mostly documentary and dramadoc/docudrama as writer/director/cinematographer and visual effects creator. He utilises all these skills in Monsters and has been deservedly rewarded with several prizes.

But most of all, Monsters looks like being the perfect film for teaching about the way in which film culture is developing and that’s what I want to explore. I should confess that I’d heard rather a lot about the film before I could get to a screening. Therefore I had a good idea of what to expect – which took away some of the possible pleasures of the narrative the first time round. I was also aware of the male lead, ‘Scoot’ McNairy who starred in the under-rated indy rom-com, In Search of a Midnight Kiss. I mention this since many reviewers refer to the two leads as ‘unknowns’ – but I felt invited in because of my familiarity with McNairy (I’ve used the earlier film successfully with students). I was also aware that many mainstream audiences for the film had felt ‘taken in’ by the title which led them to expect something that wasn’t really forthcoming – a ‘monster movie’. When I queued up at the multiplex, I realised that the group of young teenage boys behind me were discussing going to see the film and, for a moment, I thought of warning them that they might not enjoy it. I’m glad I didn’t. I’d rather risk a negative reaction than keep audiences from seeing something different.

You only have to look at IMDB and various other film websites/blogs/forums to see how this film has divided audiences. Much of the conflict focuses on expectations of what the film will offer – it was released ‘wide’, not to as many multiplexes as a blockbuster, but to far more than most specialised or ‘art’ films in the UK (164 screens compared to the 250 plus of most mainstream films). In North America, the release has been much narrower (only 25 screens, but possibly also on VOD?). I suspect that in the US, only science fiction/action fans knew about the film in the mainstream audience (the film received significant critical support which might influence the more cinephile audience). In the UK the mainstream audience was much more exposed to the trailer. So, what were they expecting?

Here is the official US trailer for Monsters. If you’ve not seen the film, please be aware that the trailer briefly shows some of the best scenes which might spoil your enjoyment of the unfolding narrative:

and here is the UK trailer:

I think the UK trailer is better – i.e. a more accurate representation of the film, though still potentially misleading. It’s inevitable that the trail will focus on the genre elements of science fiction rather than the romance/relationship drama that is at least as important. Several critics have also referred to the road movie as part of the generic mix and there is certainly a case to be argued but I think that the film is more concerned (intentionally or not) with a distinct sub-genre or extended cycle of films about migration from Central America to the United States. This involves ‘border-crossing’ and refers to a host of movies, both American and Mexican – the most recent being Sin Nombre. In the case of Monsters, the decision to make the lead male character a journalist ties the film into an0ther cycle of films about ‘journalists in warzones and their ethical stance’. One such reference might be to Nick Nolte as a photographer in Nicaragua in Under Fire (1983). Kaulder (the Scoot McNairy character in Monsters) is in Central America to take photographs about the war against the aliens. We presume he is a freelance who is nonetheless dependent on his major clients for work and he is effectively ordered by his client, a media mogul, to escort the rich man’s injured daughter back to America. He tells the young woman, Sam (Whitney Able), that photographs of happy children are worth nothing but he could get $50,000 for an image of a child killed by an alien. This has an interesting narrative pay-off later in the film. There isn’t in fact a great deal of direct critique of media corporations or US policy – which of course makes the few examples more powerful. I felt that this underplaying of metaphor was quietly effective, but it seems to have offended several internet posters. I wonder how many American viewers realised that this was a British film? The majority of films that I can think of which deal with the migration North from Central America tend to be sympathetic to the migrants and critical of the American presence at the border. Possibly the most enjoyable moment in The Day After Tomorrow is when the Americans escape to safety as refugees in Mexico.

I’m hoping to use Monsters with students and I look forward to analysing their responses.

Carlos (France/Germany 2010)

Carlos (Édgar Ramírez) takes Sheikh Yamani (Badih Abou Chakra), the Saudi oil minister hostage

This post refers to the 165 mins UK cinema release of the film which exists in longer film versions in other territories as well as in a much longer mini-series version for TV and DVD. The film is a fictionalised account of the exploits and ‘domestic’ life of the Venezuelan assassin/guerilla fighter/revolutionary soldier ‘Carlos’, sometimes referred to as ‘The Jackal’ after the fictional character created by Frederick Forsyth. His real name is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (born 1949) and the events depicted in this film version date from the period 1973-1994, during which time Carlos was mainly concerned with supporting one of the Palestinian guerilla factions, the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), although seemingly for a faction of the PFLP run by Wadie Haddad, who was eventually expelled from the organisation. The film’s main set piece is the attack on the 1975 OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) Meeting in Vienna and the attempt to use hostages in a scheme to discredit Saudi Arabia and support Iraq – thus the convoluted politics of the Middle East during the Cold War.

Cutting the film out of 334 minutes of material (the longest TV cut) means that the structure of the film is rather unbalanced and I did feel that the last third of the film was something of an anti-climax, partly because it comprised scenes separated by fades to black which both signified the sometimes large leaps forward in time, but also for the audience the suggestion that bits of the story were being missed out. The IMDB details suggest this, showing that the later scenes in the film appear in Episode 2 (of 3) in the TV version. Despite the possibility that watching the film on video might offer a more coherent experience, I’m glad I saw the ‘Scope print in a cinema.

As a production, Carlos is certainly impressive. It ranges across locations in several countries, all of them represented with a sense of authenticity. The characters (from many different countries and backgrounds) are all well represented by convincing actors and in the central role Édgar Ramírez is phenomenal – not least in his ability to speak several different languages fluently. Unlike Hollywood films, this French-German production requires all the characters to speak in first languages where feasible. Carlos speaks English to several German characters, but also French, Spanish and Arabic as required. Other than that he has to follow the De Niro line in Raging Bull and gain/lose weight throughout the film (something emphasised by several nude scenes) and age twenty years – both of which he achieves with aplomb.

The film has gained rave reviews from many critics and appeared on several ‘best of’ lists for 2010 but I’m still not sure. Putting aside the structural problems and working just on this 165 minutes, I think that it is probably best summed up as being a major film which is seriously flawed. The successes I think are first the representation of a now historical era – certainly the world before 1989, the bulk of the film. I did feel that the film captured something of a world that I remember (almost entirely from television) and it made me think about the changes. The kind of security that we now take for granted was almost non-existent then and was instituted largely, I assume, because of the airline hi-jacks and attacks carried out by the PFLP and other groups in the early 1970s. But these representations also throw up some surprising elements of almost black comedy, e.g. when a little blue and white UK police ‘panda car’ arrives after an attack in London or the seemingly old-fashioned Austrian police have to deal with ruthless guerillas. The other big change is in the lack of obvious American presence in most of the film. They may be manipulating other agents, but the CIA don’t make an appearance until late on.

The other major strength of the film is that in the long hostage sequence, it is possible to suspend disbelief and become engaged with Carlos as a guerilla leader thinking on his feet. Earlier too in a confrontation with police, we can feel that he is doing the logical thing, brutal though it may be. This isn’t a Hollywood thriller where we identify simply with an individual, with Carlos we do get the chance to explore whether he really is a revolutionary figure – if he cares about a cause and weighs up the violence with the aims of his mission. My feeling is that the balance shifts over the course of the film and in the latter stages he is a much more conventional figure.

The real problem in the film for me is in the script and in particular the dialogue. I’ve never knowingly discussed revolution with a real revolutionary but I felt that much of the dialogue, especially in the last third, was almost comic in its use of clichés – like some kind of TV sketch parody. This wasn’t helped by the relationships Carlos had with various women, but especially his East German wife, Magdalena. I didn’t get to see the Baader-Meinhof film, but I know it met a very mixed reception. What is it about the German ‘feminist revolutionaries’ in this period? I found all three German women in the film a trifle odd. One seemed very ‘ordinary’, one was clearly suffering from a psychosis and Magdalena appeared more Mata Hari than 1970s feminist. Perhaps they were accurate portrayals but as representations they just didn’t seem to fit in. The script is by Dan Franck and Olivier Assayas. Assayas also directed the film and should take great credit for the set piece scenes and the overall direction of actors.

Reading through a wide range of internet postings, I think that it is clear that many posters treat the film as a kind of superior crime thriller, focusing on Carlos as a certain kind of action protagonist. This often comes across as a liking for a ‘boy’s film’. If I’m disappointed it is because the political questions are much more interesting for me. I’d like the film to have been more like Motorcycle Diaries (I would be very interested to learn about Carlos as a teenager) and less like the Mesrine films (which I enjoyed as genre films).

Useful review of the 319 minute cut.

The US trailer:

Crime d'amour (France 2010)

Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier

This was the last film of Alain Corneau, veteran French director of polars – amongst other genres. He died aged 67 soon after the film was released. I watched the film on a long-haul flight – not the best format for critiquing a film. Even so, I could see that this was an interesting idea. Whether Corneau fully pulled it off, I’m not sure, but for a man suffering from cancer it was a brave venture.

Co-written by Corneau and Nathalie Carter, Crime d’amour (‘Love Crime‘ for the Anglophone world) is an intriguing genre mix. I would class it as a polar combined with something of a film noir. I’ve seen it described as a psychological thriller and even compared to La tourneuse de pages but I don’t think that’s really appropriate, although revenge is a central feature of the plot. North American reviewers have suggested a cross between Dangerous Liaisons and Working Girl – quite a neat description, but not very helpful in a French context. In some ways, I was reminded of Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (1958), partly because of the office setting and partly because of the detailed procedural elements of a crime. It’s quite difficult to give an outline of the plot without ‘spoiling’ the pleasures of the film, so I’ll just offer the film’s premise.


Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a senior executive in a French subsidiary of an American-owned food company. She is highly ambitious and angles for a top post in the US. Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier) is a junior executive in the same company working as Christine’s assistant. Christine seems particularly interested in giving Isabelle a helping hand and offers her a trip to Cairo to promote a new product. In Cairo she works with Phillipe, a young man working for an associate company – and also Christine’s lover. Isabelle turns out to be as driven as Christine and she does well with the Cairo work. How will the two women behave towards each other in future? Christine instigates a war between the two by stealing credit for Isabelle’s triumph in Cairo and using it for her own advancement. The knives are out.


The film is really in two halves. In part one the conflict is set up and developed until it reaches a climax with the ‘crime’ of the title. In the second half there is a criminal investigation by the police, an arrest and imprisonment and a highly contrived defence by the perpetrator. The first half is rather unrealistic in terms of business procedures but gripping because of the playing by the two stars and Corneau’s tight direction. (French office life is presented as extremely glamorous.) I found the second half to be possibly too clever in its plotting and I was slightly irritated by it. The plot hinges on the procedures of French criminal law which allows a good deal of discretion by the ‘examining/investigating judge’ in an inquisitorial judicial system. I think that this is what marks out the plot trajectories of the polar as quite different to those of British or American crime films which end up in the criminal court.

I know that some critics don’t like Ludivine Sagnier and that Kristin Scott Thomas can do no wrong (especially in the UK and US) but I’m rather taken with Ms Sagnier and this is just as much her film. We don’t get enough crime films focusing on women protagonists. Too often they are diverted into comedy, psychological drama or melodrama. In this case, the film is clearly about the women and their descent into criminal activity. The title, I think, is misleading. Philippe is a rather disposable character and Isabelle has a young male acolyte – a role which is perhaps not fully developed. The crime is too much ambition rather than too much love.

I’m not sure if the film will be released in the UK, although it has been released in New Zealand. Kristin Scott Thomas could be used to sell the film, though her role may be something of a shock for her UK/US fans. The image above helps to suggest how creepy she is, asking Isabelle what perfume she is wearing. By coincidence, one of the other new French releases available on my Air France flight was another Kristin Scott Thomas film, Elle s’appelait Sarah. A very different film, this one has just been nominated for a César (the French equivalent of the Oscars). Scott Thomas plays an American magazine journalist investigating the notorious round-up of French Jews in July 1942 in which they were held in a velodrome before being sent to the camps. I watched the first few minutes of this film but I was too tired to continue watching. This film will, I’m sure, get a UK release. We’ve reported on several Kristin Scott Thomas films recently and it’s worth pointing out that in both these French films she gets to speak English.

Here’s the New Zealand trailer for Crime d’amour:

Malaysian Cinema Pt 1

(This is a reworking of the post I made from Malaysia last week. Now I’ve got more time and better access, I want to expand my thoughts.)

The only cinema visit I could make on the trip was on a Sunday afternoon in Georgetown, Penang, where I visited the Cathay Cineplex. The ‘plex has seven screens on the 5th floor of a large shopping mall. The context of cinemagoing was interesting in that we sat in a cavernous food hall before the show. Every cuisine in Asia was on offer from the various stalls but I limited myself to a bottle of Tiger and bought a bag of vegetable crisps for the film. Next to the cinema was a large and very noisy gaming area and the mall also housed several DVD stores (more on this later). The ticket was 9 RM (roughly £2 or US$3). I think that makes cinemagoing relatively inexpensive in a country which has one of the more successful Asian economies.

My film choice was on in Screen 1, a large, steeply-raked single block of seats. I sat about ten rows back — but everyone was behind me. Khurafat is the latest Malaysian horror film release and the young audience seemed to respond favourably with screams and laughter.

All the films at this cinema appeared to be subtitled in English and some in Chinese as well. The other titles on offer included Tamil, Thai and Korean films alongside Hollywood blockbusters and a second Malaysian horror. No doubt there will be some Chinese films for New Year in a week or so.

The subtitles meant that I could follow most of the film fairly easily. The problems I did have came mostly through the editing and some aspects of local culture. Horror is clearly popular – Thai and Korean as well as Malaysian. Khurafat seemed mostly derivative of J-horror, especially in the appearance of the various ghosts. Sadako (from Ringu) and The Grudge have got a lot to answer for. Unfortunately, in this case, there are far too many appearances of ghosts – less is usually more in this genre.

The difference here is that ‘Malay’ culture is mainly Muslim (as distinct from the Chinese and Indian communities in this multi-ethnic and multi-faith society) and so we enter the world of djinns and exorcism by the local Imam. This cultural difference has attracted some international interest according to the local press. The Muslim cultural base limits the display of overt sexual behaviour – so the ‘bad girl’ does not have to do much to be bad. More emphasis is given to family relationships and the respect and filial duty expected of a young man re his widowed mother. This is neatly utilised in one aspect of the plot.

Liyana Jasmay as Aisha and Syamsul Yusof as Johan

The outline story involves Johan, a young man who seems to be a hospital administrator of some kind in Kuala Lumpur. At the beginning of the film, he attends his father’s funeral and then returns to KL. He is clearly beset by demons of various kinds and the potential cause of this ‘disturbance’ is his ex-girlfriend, Anna. She is presented as a ‘goodtime girl’, getting drunk at a disco, whereas Johan’s new wife Aisha is demure and wears a head scarf in public (as do many women in Malaysia). There are various twists and turns in the plot including a major twist at the end. Overall the film is fairly conventional, but if it serves its local audience it will encourage a recent decision by the Malaysian film authorities to allow the release of one local film per week rather than the current one per month. This previous policy was designed to prevent competition between local titles which would spread the audience too thinly. I did attempt to see an earlier Malay horror release, now in its fifth week, but when I tried to buy a ticket, the manager told me that because no tickets had been sold she had cancelled the showing. I hope that this practice doesn’t catch on! Malaysia has a television industry producing drama serials and made for television films, but whether it is yet ready for a 50 plus annual production of features, I’m not sure. The only local review of Khurafat that I’ve found suggests that the acting performances are not that great. I think that I saw one of the actors in a television drama and the lead in the film, Syamsul Yusof, is also the film’s writer and director. Perhaps that is too big a role – but it shows ambition. From my brief time in the country, however, I got the sense that there is plenty of young talent waiting to break through – everywhere we went we came across photo shoots and occasionally video shoots. More on the Malaysian industry in a follow-up posting.

Here’s the trailer for Khurafat. This hasn’t got English subs – but it doesn’t really need them:

Foyle Film Festival 2010

The Foyle Film Festival held in Derry in November, the most westerly city in the UK, is a relatively small festival with a big welcome, a lively atmosphere and a wide range of interesting activities. For filmmakers, the specific attraction is that Foyle is one of the festivals which is ‘officially sanctioned’ by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences – in other words, being in competition at the Foyle Film Festival means that your film is eligible for nomination for an Oscar. The competitive strand at the festival comprises ‘International Short’, ‘Irish Short’, ‘Animation’ and ‘Documentary’. The ‘long list’ of ten titles for the 2011 ‘International Live Action Short Oscar’ includes four titles that were screened in Derry in 2009/2010.

The full Foyle programme includes international features and documentaries and 2010’s theme was ‘The Magic of the Past’, with screenings of Citizen Kane, the newly restored Metropolis and associated documentaries. Alongside the high profile international films, the Foyle Festival’s strengths derive from its history and its location. Derry has strong cultural links with the Irish Republic (the border is only a few miles away and Derry serves the North of Donegal as well as County Londonderry) and attracts Irish filmmakers. Animation and music are also strengths because of the festival’s home in the Nerve Centre, Derry’s unique moving image and music centre which now comprises two small cinemas and a performance space alongside the production workshops which have helped to train a generation of local filmmakers. In 1998 Dance Lexie, Dance, a Raw Nerve Production was nominated for the Short Film Oscar. Run from the Nerve Centre, the festival uses the two Nerve Centre cinemas, the 100 seat traditional Orchard Hall Cinema and, for the more mainstream films, the Omniplex commercial cinema.

The Foyle Festival also runs an extensive education programme and that’s why I was invited this year. I hadn’t been to the festival for more than ten years and it was good to see the development of the Nerve Centre and of much of Derry City Centre, especially within the old walled city. Derry has been awarded the status of the first UK Capital of Culture for 2013 and that promises a build-up of arts events over the next two years in which the Foyle Film Festival will certainly figure.

I gave a presentation to students on Moving Image Arts courses exploring the film language used by Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol and Roman Polanski (materials to follow) and then watched the showcase of student productions from 2009/10. Moving Image Arts is an A Level and GCSE qualification that offers something new in a UK context – a focus on film as art with 50% production work in animation or live action. I was very impressed with the quality of work produced by students and I hope to report in detail on the still relatively new qualification offered by CCEA – the Northern Ireland Awards Body – with the Nerve Centre playing a leading role in developing moving image work in schools and colleges registering for the qualification. The work is also fully supported by Northern Ireland Screen which was well represented at the Foyle Film Festival screenings through Bernard McCloskey, Head of Education. See the Press Release from Ingrid Arthurs, Subject Officer for Moving Image Arts at CCEA.

Thanks to Nerve Centre Director Martin Melarkey and everyone else associated with the centre, without whom none of these developments would have been possible. More on Moving Image Arts later this term.