Monthly Archives: September 2011

Drive (US 2011)

Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan meet in the lift in their apartment building.

I didn’t know too much about Drive when I sat down to watch it. I remembered vaguely that the film had done well at Cannes (it won the Director’s prize for the Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn). We covered his 2010 bloody historical film Valhalla Rising, so I should have been prepared for the severity of the violence in Drive – but I wasn’t. My usual response to excessive violence is just to shut my eyes. I try not to be too moralistic about it and I endorse depictions of violence towards some form of socially useful purpose, but in this film the actions of the central character just seem excessive. In one particular scene he kisses Carey Mulligan in a tender and sensitive way and then turns and kicks a man to death. Yes, it was self-defence, but the brutality wasn’t justified. (Reading various responses this is clearly a key scene for many in the audience who discuss why ‘the driver’ Gosling) did it and what he expected the response to be from Irene (Mulligan).

I think that I am reacting here to the avalanche of praise for the film and in particular the repeated cry that this film is ‘So Cool!’. It is extremely well-directed, brilliantly paced, beautifully designed and well-acted and it conjures up numerous noirish crime films from 70 years of Hollywood. The script by Iranian-Brit Hossein Amini, based on a novel by James Sallis is tightly constructed. This is what is fascinating. The ‘cool’ tag is partly applied because the film title most frequently cited by reviewers is Bullit with Steve McQueen. The link is a central character who is mostly silent, wearing his shades and driving gloves and driving with great skill and control through the streets of LA and its environs. McQueen traded on his looks, his lack of expression and occasional facial tics and his demeanour. He was a great star. Ryan Gosling looks and acts the part and is a coming if not ‘arrived’ star. But there the direct link to Bullit‘s narrative ends, I think.

Drive offers us Gosling as an unnamed central character, who works as a skilled mechanic and moonlights as both a Hollywood stunt driver and a getaway driver for local hoods. He has no background, no ties and in his criminal activity he is strictly disciplined. His boss at the garage hopes to make him a stock car driver but this involves getting into bed with a local gangster. The ‘the driver’ meets ‘the girl’ – with a young son and a husband in prison. That’s all you need to know. As usual, Philip French makes all the appropriate film connections and he has unearthed a producer who links two ‘European’ directors taking a different look at LA crime – Peter Yates in Bullit, John Boorman in Point Blank plus the Americans Walter Hill (The Driver), Michael Mann (various titles!) and William Friedkin (To Live and Die in LA) making films influenced by European Cinema. I’d add a further title directed by a Frenchman in the 1970s, I think, but I can’t track it down.

Personally, I think that the narrative match is with The Driver. This has Ryan O’Neal as a similarly unnamed ‘Driver’ – although here he is pursued by a cop (played by Bruce Dern). French suggests that The Driver was influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville and certainly I remember thinking that the central character was a form of existentialist hero. The Gosling character seems more like a kind of avenging angel. One comment I read suggested Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ noting the toothpick the driver chews much as Eastwood chewed cheroots. This would be the Eastwood of High Plains Drifter. But this doesn’t really explain how a highly-skilled ‘driver’ transmutes into a brutal avenger (i.e. beyond just saving himself).

In The Driver, the female lead is Isabelle Adjani, in Bullit it’s Jacqueline Bisset. Here, it is another European, Carey Mulligan. I know she has been in Hollywood movies before, but to me she is about as American as Typhoo teabags. She’s very good of course and her Englishness means she can be both ‘ordinary’ and ‘mysterious’ at the same time.

The obvious point is that Drive is not a car chase movie – even if there are a cuople of well-planned chases. It’s a classy thriller which made me think of two other crime films with car/driving connections – Don Siegel’s The Killers (with John Cassavetes as a racing driver) and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. To compare Drive to these two films sounds like high praise I think, but I don’t like the idea of it being ‘cool’.

An interesting take on the US release of Drive and its box office performance (below some predictions) here.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (UK/France/Germany 2011)

Mark Strong as a British agent sent to Budapest

I was eager to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the lack of commas appears deliberate) simply because of my admiration for Tomas Alfredson’s previous film Let the Right One In. I wasn’t disappointed in his direction. I enjoyed the film very much and I think it is one of the best designed films (by Maria Djurkovic who has a long line of credits in UK film and television) I have seen in a long time. If I’m not overly excited by its success, it is simply because it is an adaptation that follows the earlier lengthy TV series from 1979 rather than being something new. Still, there are several interesting aspects to the production and to this release.

The first is that despite the (middle-class and public school) Englishness of the property, this is very much a European film. It marks the first official release for the re-branded StudioCanal – a French company which has autonomous British and German subsidiaries that are both involved in this production, alongside StudioCanal’s long-time UK partner, Working Title. The film shot in Budapest and Istanbul as well as London. It was directed by a Swede, photographed by a Swiss-Dutchman (Hoyte Van Hoytema), edited by a Sweded  and much of the effects work and design work was carried out in Sweden. The excellent music is by the Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias.  (There is some excellent use of songs in the film with George Formby’s Mr Wu and a great rendition of Charles Trenier’s ‘La mer’ by Julio Iglesias.)

The acting is, as expected, exemplary and I’ll leave it to others to work out whether Gary Oldman achieves as much or more – or less than Alec Guinness in his portrayal of George Smiley. Otherwise it is splendid ensemble work all round.

I’ve enjoyed some Le Carré’s later novels but I haven’t read the Smiley titles. I’m a little concerned that the success of this film will start off a series of further adaptations, possibly with Alfredson attached. Not that he wouldn’t do a good job, but I’d like to see him try something else. For the moment though, Alfredson’s spy story stands up well against two other sober spy dramas, Sidney J. Furie’s Len Deighton adaptation The Ipcress File (UK 1965) and my admittedly hazy memories of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (UK 1965). The latter directed by Martin Ritt was another Le Carré adaptation with (I see now) George Smiley as a minor character played by one-time Maigret star Rupert Davies. Richard Burton was in the lead. Perhaps because I saw this as a teenager not that many years after the Berlin Wall went up, it made much more of an impression on me. Tinker Tailor now appears as more of a good yarn than a commentary on the times.

Interesting official website.

Ken Loach: Route Irish (UK/Fra/Bel/Ital/Spain 2010)

Fergus looks down on the Liverpool waterfront from his sparse modern flat.

I’m not sure why I didn’t see Route Irish on its cinema release. Watching it now on DVD is not ideal but I can see that this is a complex work that feels very different but nonetheless shares elements from several titles across Loach’s back catalogue. It isn’t an easy film and seems to have almost been designed to alienate a casual viewer. Certainly it has fared very poorly in the UK (opening at No 27 on only 22 screens) and it’s interesting that the IMdb entry for the film carries few ‘external reviews’ from the usual critics and a pretty thin collection of ‘user reviews’ and bulletin postings – mostly condemning or praising the film on the basis of its politics or its status as a ‘thriller’. As usual for a Loach film, Route Irish opened on many more screens in France (126) for a Top 20 entry in Week 1 – but the screen average was still disappointing and this looks like being the least successful Loach-Laverty film for some time. Thanks to pre-sales, however, Sweet Sixteen Films is unlikely to lose its shirt.

Route Irish is about a metaphorical ‘journey’ taken by the lead character Fergus Molloy (Liverpool actor Mark Womack, mainly seen on British TV). As Loach points out in an interview, Fergus does not seek redemption as in a Hollywood movie. Instead he attempts to make some connection with the man he used to be. It’s virtually impossible and there is no happy ending. Fergus is an ex-soldier, once in the SAS. It is 2007 and for the last few years he has been working as a security contractor in Iraq running his own team but now he is back in Liverpool, unable to leave the country after a night-club incident and the confiscation of his passport. He is distraught when he hears that his best friend Frankie (played by the Liverpool comedian John Bishop), who he persuaded to join him on the team, has been killed on ‘Route Irish’, the most dangerous road in Iraq between the airport and the ‘Green Zone’. Frankie’s funeral sees the highly sceptical Fergus begin to ask questions, not believing anything of what he hears about Frankie’s death – especially from the men who run the security operation. He has one lead – a mobile phone that Frankie had left with a mutual friend for safekeeping and which carries photos and short video clips.

The phone provides a narrative device that allows the audience to ‘witness’ scenes from the security work in Iraq (filmed on location in Jordan). Fergus gets an Arabic and Kurdish translation of dialogue from a Kurdish refugee in Liverpool – recalling the use of refugee characters in Ladybird, Ladybird and Carla’s Song. We also experience flashbacks as Fergus discusses being a soldier with Rachel, Frankie’s girlfriend (who might have known Fergus first). In fact, the film begins with quite a subtle use of flashback which I didn’t immediately twig – as Fergus looks out across the Mersey, leaning over the rail of the ferry he hears the last messages that Frankie left on his phone. Cut to the title and then back to two young men larking about on the same ferry. The image is slightly degraded but the production can’t afford to present an image of 30 years ago, so it is only later that we get confirmation that this was indeed Fergus and Frankie as teens bunking off school and dreaming of travels overseas.

The ‘action’ of the film has been described as ‘Bourne-like’ by some critics and derided by action fans. It has also been suggested that it is a distinct change for Loach. Most of this commentary is nonsense of course. There is no attempt to compete with Hollywood on action scenes. Yes there are explosions and violent, brutal actions but similar things have happened in films throughout Loach’s career. The difference for me is Fergus as a lead. Womack plays him, successfully in my view, as severely emotionally damaged, barely under control, never sure when he is lying, fooling himself or being coldly honest. Often the characters at the centre of Loach films – scripted by Paul Laverty or the earlier ones by Jim Allen – have some form of warmth, some charisma, some sense of hope. Fergus has a difficult relationship, dependent on violence, with Rachel. One of the few times he laughs is when he is watching another ex-soldier, his friend Craig, playing for a blind football team. The image of Fergus laughing as Craig, wearing an Everton shirt, blunders into another player is very affecting. (Loach, a big football supporter, made one of his best TV plays in 1968 about supporters of the Golden Vision – Alex Young, Everton’s centre forward in the early 1960s.)

So, what are the politics of Route Irish that so enrage/bore some reviewers? I think that there are a couple of lines of dialogue that don’t quite work – Fergus remarks that Iraqi families ‘turned over’ by British and American soldiers will end up supporting Al Qaeda. This doesn’t seem to fit with Fergus. He is a political animal only in the way that he represents the damage done to the men who have served. His actions in the film are driven by guilt and revenge – and by this desperate attempt to re-discover something of what he and Frankie had before they became soldiers. In the process of doing this, Fergus reveals the political points that Laverty and Loach want to make about the futile British ‘mission’ and the damage done to Iraq and its people. In this respect, Route Irish feels like an honest film about a shameful period of British history in which British troops were asked to fight an illegal war and then, with private contractors (making huge profits), to clear up the mess. The look of the film is cold and bleak and although Liverpool has appeared in several earlier Loach plays and films, here there are few shots (the ferry apart) that are recognisable and none that romanticise the city  – everything is presented by Chris Menges in a very different style to the Kestrel Films productions such as Black Jack in 1979.

The original Press Conference from Cannes in 2010:

Ken's Jubilee – Into the Sixth Decade of Loachian Cinema

Susannah Lenton (script supervisor), Ken Loach (director), Barry Ackroyd (cinematographer) on the set of 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley', © Sweet Sixteen Films

Ken Loach was 75 earlier this year and he is currently being feted by the BFI with a re-release of his best-known film Kes (1969) (from Park Circus) and a première for his 1969 documentary made for Save The Children Fund and London Weekend Television. The latter has never previously been screened after the charity objected to the stance Loach and his collaborators took towards what they discovered in its children’s homes. The whole BFI programme at ‘BfI Southbank’ runs from now until October – see the details here.

Loach, a grammar-school boy from Nuneaton began his career post Oxford University as an assistant director in live theatre before moving to the BBC as a trainee television director in 1963 (see Lez Cooke’s entry on Screenonline). Since then he’s directed an impressive array of ‘television plays’, fiction features and documentaries over nearly 50 years. In that time he’s received mostly grudging praise for his output with only a handful of films singled out for acclaim – mostly those where the class politics are easier to overlook or the subject matter is closer to mainstream concerns. Perhaps what gets up the noses of so many commentators is Ken’s utter refusal to compromise in any way. Which is of course why some of us admire him so much.

I don’t like one or two of Loach’s films as much as the others but I still admire him for making them and I don’t doubt his commitment to the cause – these films (I’m thinking primarily of It’s a Free World) make me think again about my own politics. There is plenty else to admire too: the lack of interest in mainstream American filmmaking but the evident pleasure in being a respected filmmaker across many parts of Europe for one and the loyalty to close collaborators for another. Loach doesn’t like the idea of being an auteur and he recognises the importance of his relationships with producers and writers – no more than a handful of each associated with over 50 titles.

Loach is not a cinema stylist – someone for whom meaning is associated with extravagant camerawork or mise en scène. He does have a style of course. It involves casting an appropriate performer (not necessarily a film actor) for a specific character role defined by region, class etc., developing a naturalistic performance and filming it with an observational camera. As he said on a recent BBC Radio 4 interview, Loach believes in cinema as the ‘art of the possible’. Unlike other artists the film director and his/her crew can never have complete control, they can only try to complete the scenes in the time possible and within the budget restraints. Ken Loach films always come in on budget and they don’t lose money because they have been pre-sold to meet the budget target. Is Loach a great filmmaker? For me, anyone who can make emotionally engaging films about real social issues to a strict budget on a consistent basis and maintain working relationships and a personal politics in line with socialist principles in the face of film industry opposition is a great filmmaker without question. Ken is the man!

We are starting to post some of our previous work on Ken’s films with Keith’s comments on The Wind That Shakes the Barley as the first example.

Our earlier post on Looking for Eric includes some discussion.

You can view some of the lesser known of the Loach films on Loach’s own YouTube Channel here and learn more about Sixteen Films on the company’s website, including the current ‘in production’ title, The Angel’s Share.

Women Without Men (Zanan-e bedun-e mardan, Ger/Austria/Fra/It/Ukraine/Morocco 2009)

The CinemaScope framings are well used in Women Without Men

This film sneaked out on a single print in June 2010 in the UK and I missed it. I only became aware of it when researching A Separation. I’m glad that it is now available on DVD as it proves to be an interesting production for several reasons.

Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist best known for short films that appear in gallery installations. Born into an upper middle-class Tehran family she left to study in the US around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This is her first feature film and she wrote and directed it in partnership with Shoja Azari, variously described as an Iranian-American artist and filmmaker. With two artists at the helm Women Without Men was unlikely to be made as a conventional feature and what was produced does not disappoint in that respect. Although ostensibly based on a historical novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour, the film proves to be a visual treat and something of a meditative art object despite some powerful and emotionally charged passages. (The novelist herself, a celebrated figure in Iran but now exiled in America, appears in the film as a brothel-keeper.)

The setting is Tehran in 1953 at the time of the coup d’état engineered by the British and Americans to secure their oil interests, bringing down the government of Prime Minister Mossadegh and reinstating the powers of the Shah. Four women from different backgrounds are featured with three of them eventually coming together in a large but isolated country house – more like a fantasy garden than a real location. The woman who owns the house is the wife of an Army General who has discovered a liberal café society since an old male friend returned from the West. Another is a beautiful but emaciated prostitute. The other two do know each other but they have different views – one conservative and orthodox but the other radical and not prepared to compromise. The latter leads us into the action of the coup and the attempts by radicals to resist it.

The look of the film is deliberate and very precisely controlled in CinemaScope images ‘painted’ in muted tones through a slow-moving camera lens. (The Tehran scenes are nearly monochrome but colour breaks through in the ‘garden’.) Several images are surreal and the overall effect is heightened by the production constraints. Presumably the two filmmakers were unable/unwilling (?) to return to Iran (the original novel was banned in Iran) so the production was based in Morocco. I have no real idea how Tehran looked in the early 1950s (apart from a few newsreel images) but I’m sure that it was probably significantly different from the Tehran of contemporary Iranian films. I have been to parts of Morocco and the locations used in Women Without Men did seem to cry out ‘North Africa’ pretty convincingly. I’m not suggesting that this is a problem, simply that it adds to the sense of ‘otherness’ as I take North African and Iranian cultures to be significantly different. (Neshat says that she thinks Casablanca does resemble Tehran in the 1950s.) Another way to approach the film is to see it as primarily a ‘globalised’ production. One of the women is played by a Hungarian, the film is photographed by a German and scored by Ryuchi Sakamoto and without the support of various European production funds the film couldn’t have been made.

The DVD carries a long and detailed statement to camera from Shirin Neshat who reveals some interesting aspects of the production. She tells us that the film was a long time in preparation in different countries and that it travelled extensively in post-production with different editors in each country. However, two seemingly contradictory factors held it together. The joint Austrian/Iranian design teams were meticulous in their research but Neshat and Azari didn’t want to make a ‘social realist film’. Neshat speaks about her admiration for East European/Russian and Scandinavian films and specifically mentions Tarkovsky as an inspiration. I did sense this in the film – partly perhaps because of the scenes in long shot in which crowds of protestors clashed with groups of soldiers or where the soldiers swarm into buildings. I was reminded of scenes in Andrei Roublev by Tarkovsky (and The Red and the White by Jansco). These sequences are contrasted in the more static tableaux and the scenes with the slow-moving camera. Neshin also speaks of Roy Andersson and I can see the link to his work.

The black of the women is isolated against the white of the men (and of the desert)

What does it all add up to? I was struck by one comment on IMdb in which it was suggested that the film is metaphorical in terms of the women’s treatment by men and the damage this does to the prospects of democracy in Iran. The film ends with a dedication to the revolutionaries in Iran from the 1906 ‘Constitutional Revolution’ to the recent ‘Green Revolution’. The suggested metaphor then develops the house and garden in the desert as a kind of potentially democratic ‘paradise’ (the first shot of the film follows one of the women entering the grounds via an irrigation canal). The gardener/caretaker is one of the few men in the film shown sympathetically. Neshat herself refers to the garden as a central image in Persian culture and especially in poetry as a symbolic place to engage with the spiritual. The narratives of the four women each represent different aspects of women’s lives in Iran. The westernised woman, though wealthy, is marginalised because of her age and is caught between men of opposing views who both patronise her. The orthodox woman eventually comes to see that marriage in this society is a trap. The most dramatic stories involve the radical and the prostitute. The presentation of the radical character Munis is surprising and I won’t spoil it. No amount of distancing camerawork can negate the shock of the image of Zarin a terribly thin woman scrubbing herself violently in the hammam in a vain attempt to free herself from the disgust she feels at her use by men.

I’m not sure why this film received so little attention in the UK (it was promoted well in the US). I would say it is well worth seeing and especially in the context of the other films by Iranian women, both the internal critics such as the Makhmalbafs and the other diaspora director, Mariane Satrapi of Persepolis fame.The two major criticisms seem to be that a) there are too many ideas in the film and b) that it feels like four separate stories not successfully melding into a single coherent narrative. I don’t see the problem with too many ideas. The second is the view of Sight and Sound‘s reviewer Sophie Meyer who points out that each of the stories had first been presented as gallery installations. My response to this is to argue that art films don’t need to offer coherent realist narratives and anyway putting the installation work into a feature enables many more people to see it who like me are unlikely to be able to get to the exhibitions where the installations play.

There is a great deal of useful information on the filmmaker and the film in the detailed Press Pack available here.

Here’s the official trailer which gives a good indication of the style but also a couple of possible spoilers:

 

Son of Babylon (Iraq/UK/Fra/NL/Palestine/UAE/Egypt 2009)

The gateway to Baghdad

I’ve been trying for some time to catch this film which was produced out of Yorkshire with partners in several other countries. I was lucky to find it showing as part of the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival in July and with an accompanying Q&A with director Mohamed Al Daradji and producer Isabelle Stead. The only drawback was that distributors Dogwoof  had sent a DVD instead of a 35mm print to the 500 seat Hebden Bridge Picturehouse. The result was that a film shot on 35mm looked dark and pixellated on the big screen. Following a similar experience with Dogwoof’s Amreeka, I’m getting a bit cross with this practice. However, the usual healthy Hebden Bridge audience didn’t seem to have too many problems with the film and I didn’t have the heart to ask the director what he thought of the crappy image on screen after months spent carefully filming in Iraq. (Ironically, his company hires out their 35mm camera equipment to make much needed revenue.)

Mohamed Al Daradji was, as he told us, born in a poor part of Baghdad. He trained as a filmmaker in Hilversum in the Netherlands and in Leeds where he later founded Human Film (which also has a presence in the Netherlands and in Iraq). He was actually making his first film Ahlaam (Dreams) (2006) in Baghdad when he had the idea for Son of Babylon. The film has a very simple story. 12 year-old Ahmed travels with his grandmother, south from the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq to Baghdad in 2003 in search of his father Ibrahim who has been missing since the Gulf War in 1991. From Baghdad they travel on to a prison and then further south to check the mass graves that are being opened in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Al Daradji, in a Q&A downloadable from the Human Film website, has spoken about the influence of both Rossellini and Italian neo-realism in the late 1940s as well as more recent Iranian Cinema on his work in Iraq. I was certainly struck by the Rossellini comparisons and by the similarities between the Baghdad street scenes and images of Afghanistan in the work of the Makhmalbafs. Following the neo-realist approach, Al Daradji searched for non-actors for all the roles in the film. He filmed on location in six different Iraqi cities and took his story from ‘contemporary life’ or “from the world” as Rossellini suggested. The whole process was extremely difficult, not least because of the problems in getting footage sent back to the West for processing. Not surprisingly, Al Daradji says that he formed a close bond with his actors, especially the young boy whom he has since ‘mentored’.

The neo-realist approach has also caused other problems. The film’s ending is bleak – just like the prospects for many Iraqis. There is no attempt to fictionalise the ending by hinting at an optimistic future for the boy. Instead, the narrative effectively ends with the facts about the numbers of ‘missing’ in Iraq. This includes not only the 1 million and more lost in the three wars since 1980 but also the more than 150,000 since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The filmmakers have set up a campaign group with a UK base and charitable status: Iraq’s Missing Campaign. They have also started a petition which you can sign online. The website suggests many other ways to help – including help in promoting the film and I’m certainly willing to do that (but please persuade Dogwoof to get their act together!). Either of the two websites above will lead you to information on the film and the campaign.

I found the film gripping but painful to watch. The poor quality of the image in this particular screening means that I can’t comment on whether a more ‘beautiful’ image would have an effect on how an audience responds. The lack of a ‘happy ending’ is not a concern of course but there are always going to be questions about how to handle the emotional response that films like this generate. The filmmakers have attempted to channel that emotion into support for their campaign and that seems the right thing to do.

I have no direct knowledge of Iraq and therefore took what was offered at face value. However, after the screening I met a friend who was in Baghdad in 2003 (in a humanitarian aid capacity, I think). She pointed out that the street scenes shot in 2008 did not really represent how Baghdad looked in 2003 – in particular, the women in 2003 were dressed in much brighter clothing and were not routinely ‘covered’ to the same extent. If this is true it does undermine some aspects of the presentation. My friend also commented on the Kurdish elements of the story, suggesting that there were problems in giving the audience information about Kurdish culture in an artificial way in the dialogue. I don’t think that there is much that could be done about this – the audience for the film in the West would probably be lost without some explanation of Kurdish history. However, it does raise an interesting question about any assumptions we might have about Iraqi culture and the position of a distinctive separate community within the country. Al Daradji himself is an ‘outsider’ in terms of the Kurdish community and his discussions with his actors involved considerable amounts of translation. Of course, it would be good to know what the Kurds in Iraq thought about the film. Al Daradji was able to tell us about the screenings he held in the country (which now is without functioning cinemas as such) and unsurprisingly they were very well received. You can read about the screening in Baghdad in a Guardian interview and the film has I think now been shown in other parts of Iraq using mobile cinema kit.

A DVD release accompanied the film into UK cinemas and I’d urge you to rent or buy the DVD (or watch it online) and support the campaign.

Production Notes and more on the film from Dogwoof.

Cinema has an important role to play in telling stories like these from a personal perspective. Al Daradji has said that he feels that his film offers a distinctively alternative view of Iraq to those of the US/UK broadcast media.

The official trailer for the film: