Monthly Archives: March 2012

Stacking up the numbers on Hollywood remakes – a win for subtitles?

Trying – and probably failing – not to feel smug, I offer you this article in today’s Guardian by number cruncher Charles Gant. A week before the release of Headhunters, confidently expected to be a worldwide hit as a Norwegian film, Gant reports that MGM has conceded that David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will make a loss in cinemas (despite grossing over $230 million). Gant questions why Hollywood makes a seemingly pointless remake – our sentiments entirely. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg is reported as being interested in taking the lead role in Summit’s remake of Headhunters.

Having just read Headhunters – and enjoying it very much, I’m very much looking forward to the film and I’ll be introducing it on April 14 at the National Media Museum in Bradford as part of a talk on Nordic Crime Fiction. Please come along.

Balada triste de trompeta (The Last Circus, Spain/France 2010)

In the opening sequence set in 1937, the circus performers are dragooned into fighting against the Nationalist rebels.

This is exactly the kind of  film that it would probably be impossible to see outside of !Viva¡ or another major festival in the UK (I think it played at Edinburgh last Summer). And yet this is not a film by an unknown director. Álex de la Iglesia is a prominent Spanish filmmaker who first appeared with Acción mutante in 1992 but most of his titles that have been released in the UK in the past ten years have made little impact, except for the English language literary adaptation, The Oxford Murders (2008). Perhaps it is not surprising. Núria Triana-Toribio opens her book Spanish National Cinema (Routledge 2003) with a comment on de la Iglesia to the effect that he is “the present, and possibly the future of Spanish Cinema. At the same time, his films may also be the death-knell of the very idea of a Spanish national cinema”. She goes on to explain that with all their references to authentic Spanish culture, no films could be more ‘castizo‘ – ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’. Yet this is all in spirit of parodying that national culture. And, of course, the full range of the references is only accessible by a local audience.

Balada triste de trompeta is a Spanish-French co-production, so presumably the French production partners thought that they were funding something that would work in the French market. I make no claims to a great knowledge of Spanish culture but I think I got enough of the references. The English title doesn’t help much as the narrative is essentially about two clowns and particularly about the ‘sad clown’ (the ‘sad trumpet ballad’ is sung on screen in a cinema at one point and the trumpet makes another crucial appearance in a different context). Where do they get these English titles from?

Initially it is 1937 and a circus troupe finds itself caught up in the Republican resistance against the Nationalist rebels in Spain. Forced to fight, the circus clown hacks down several of the enemy with his sword/machete but is then captured and eventually put to work with other prisoners after the war has ended, building the Fascist Monument to the Fallen in Valle de los Caidos. The clown’s son, Javier, now a young teenager, attempts to sabotage the building work but in the melée his father is killed and the boy wounds the Fascist colonel in charge. In 1973 the son has now fulfilled his father’s prophecy and become a ‘sad clown’ who is perpetually beaten up in the clown’s act. When he joins a new troupe he meets a particularly vicious clown who is the star attraction. This clown, Sergio, also beats up his girlfriend, the voluptuous Natalia. Javier feels compelled to intervene and is encouraged by Natalia – who nonetheless responds to Sergio’s violent sexual advances. (Natalia is played by Carolina Bang, who is married to the director.) The three-way battle eventually ends in a full-blown action sequence on top of the giant crucifix that stands above the Basilica of the Monument of the Fallen.

You certainly couldn’t accuse Álex de la Iglesia of holding back. This an extravaganza of comedy, horror, extreme violence and sexuality that is part Hitchcockian, part Todd Browning and part every schlocky horror film featuring clowns or children’s entertainers. All of this fits the extended allegory about the Civil War and its aftermath – with Natalia as Spain, Sergio as the brutal tyrannical Fascist and Javier as the anti-fascist. As one review that I read suggested, it’s almost as if de la Iglesia was trying to demonstrate to Guillermo del Toro exactly what a Spanish film about the war might look like. In one of the most bizarre scenes, Javier is reduced to acting as a gun-dog (don’t ask!) during a shoot organised by ageing Fascists and  . . . no, I won’t spoil it.

Balada triste de trompeta  won a Silver Lion at Venice in 2011 for Álex de la Iglesia as well as several other awards at different festivals. It is available as a Region 2 DVD/Blu-ray from Spain. Did I ‘enjoy’ it? I’m not sure, but I was never bored and I’m glad that I saw it. Thanks to Cornerhouse and !Viva¡ for the opportunity.

Uzak (Distant Turkey 2002)

Yusuf (Emin Toprak) in the snowy streets of Istanbul

The new film from Nuri Bilge Ceylan is due to open in the UK this Friday and last night we watched his 2002 film which I think was his breakthrough with arthouse audiences over here. I remember watching it without knowing anything about the director and being very impressed back in 2004 when it finally reached London after winning prizes at Cannes in 2003.

My strongest memories of the film were the compositions of one of the two principal characters, Yusuf (Emin Toprak) isolated in the snowy urban landscapes of Istanbul. This was the third film by Ceylan (co-writer and director) to feature Toprak with Muzaffer Özdemir. Soon after completing the film Toprak was killed in a car crash, a tragedy that would also ultimately change the director’s approach to casting. In Uzak, Özdemir plays Mahmut, a village boy who has built up a successful career in Istanbul as a photographer. Yusuf is his country cousin who is forced out of his village by redundancy and comes to Istanbul seeking work on a ship. Mahmut is a rather reluctant host, a divorced man stuck in his ways who thinks of his cousin as something of a country bumpkin. The film’s title refers to the ‘distance’ in culture between the village and the big city – and the potential distance between the two cousins.

The film is strong on metaphors and symbols. Istanbul looks wonderful cloaked in thick snow and Ceylan knows just how to make use of the possibilities it offers as Yusuf wanders forlornly around the waterfront looking for work. At the end of one hopeless trip he stares down at a bowl of small fishes one of which has fallen from the bowl and is thrashing about in a puddle – we know how he feels. Back in Mahmut’s flat the two men do battle with a mouse in the kitchen with sometimes hilarious outcomes but the inference is clear. The country mouse has come to town and the town mouse doesn’t know quite how to react.

In his use of two non-professionals as leads, Ceylan is using men he knows (he often used other members of his family in his early films) and he has admitted that the early films are autobiographical to some extent (for instance, Muzaffer appears as both a filmmaker in Clouds of May (1999) and a photographer here, mirroring Ceylan’s activities. I’m not sure whether Mahmut’s rather wonderful flat is actually Ceylan’s but we do see a poster for Ceylan’s first film, a short titled Koza on Mahmut’s wall. If Mahmut is in any way ‘representative’ of the director, it is a brave self-examination because Mahmut is certainly a man with flaws. He has become the isolated and alienated intellectual who has even lost interest in the art form that drove him in his career. The film sets up a nice contrast between Yusuf’s traditional community-orientated values and Mahmut’s disdain for family and friends. But it also hints at the possibility that Yusuf could end up like Mahmut if he spends too much time in the city. In this sense the scenes in which both men (separately) stare out across the Bosphorus from the waterfront remind us of the key geographical and cultural location of Turkey, looking out to Europe and beyond and back into the hinterland of Western Asia.

The film is slow-paced but never dull. I never felt it dragged and that is down to Ceylan’s fine visual sense (he photographed the film himself), enough humour to spice up the observation of the characters and two fine central performances that won the pair a joint acting prize at Cannes.



The Man on the Roof (Mannen på taket, Sweden 1976)

The media on the street during the climax of The Man on the Roof (screengrab by DVD Beaver)

Nordic crime fiction is one of the major trends in contemporary film and television with successful Nordic titles often prompting swift American remakes. If you want to go back to the source of many of the celebrated elements of the Swedish police procedural, the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö offer a good place to start. This couple, good Marxist socialists both, wrote ten immensely popular police procedurals in the 1960s and 1970s featuring a Stockholm detective and his team. The stories all manage to critique what the authors saw as the flaws in Swedish social democracy. It is this political imperative which has survived in the work of Henning Mankell and others. All the books were made into films or TV series in Sweden and overseas. The best of the films is often said to be this 1976 adaptation by the celebrated Swedish director Bo Widerberg. Widerberg was the young turk of the Swedish ‘New Wave’ in the early 1960s and one of the more radical directors who was critical of Ingmar Bergman’s status within Swedish film culture.

The novel’s title is The Abominable Man – a reference to a police lieutenant who is lying in a hospital bed when he is attacked and brutally murdered, almost filleted with a bayonet. Martin Beck and his colleagues begin an investigation but just as they solve the mystery, the murderer takes to the rooftops with a selection of powerful snipers’ rifles and the police authorities have to devise a safe way of disarming him.

Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck. Eastwood or McQueen he isn't, but not a police inspector to underestimate either.

The key feature of the film is its realism. Widerberg shoots on location and the action sequences in the film have a strong documentary feel which is also evident during the long police procedural sequences. The casting of a leading Swedish comedian of the period Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck and the sheer ‘ordinariness’ of the rest of the team adds to this ‘realism effect’. (Lindstedt was the son of a Social-Democratic Party politician and started his career in a socialist youth theatre group according to Wikipedia.)  The film is generally very well thought of – bearing comparison with the best Hollywood crime films of the 1970s (comparisons are made with The French Connection). The critique here is not of police corruption in the Hollywood sense (i.e. drugs, extortion etc.), but something more akin to the systematic failure of police teams to do their job properly – and then to cover up the evidence with collective amnesia and a refusal to take complaints seriously. This approach shifts the focus from a single rogue to the system itself.

Overall I was very impressed with this film (presented on a Swedish Region 2 DVD with English subs bought online from The quality of the transfer to DVD is very good. I was a Widerberg fan in the late 1960s and early 1970s but I don’t remember this getting a UK release. I did feel that one or two of the decisions during the sniper incident seemed a bit odd, but then I reflected on how Hollywood would have played it and concluded that the bungling of the Swedish approach is much more like real life and the mistakes we all make. It might be interesting to compare this with some of the other Martin Beck adaptations. After watching this, it doesn’t seem so surprising that Walter Matthau should have played Beck in the US adaptation of another Sjöwall/Wahlöö novel The Laughing Policeman (novel 1968, film 1973). The setting is changed to San Francisco and the character names are changed but the cast looks strong Louis Gossett Jr, Bruce Dern and Joanna Cassidy in a small role. Anybody seen it?

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (UK/US 2011)

(From left) Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Judi Dench, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup on a rooftop overlooking the lake in Udaipur.

Occasionally there is a wish in our household for a trip to a rom-com or a ‘feelgood’ film. British films are often much safer bets than Hollywood. With some trepidation we sat and watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. If I’m honest it was because I’d seen the trailer and any British film about India is grist to my mill. In the event it wasn’t that painful and a cast that includes Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Celia Imrie et al is always going to be watchable. However, the film still has various problems which are worth exploring and its reception raises a few more.

The title is a reference to the ‘Indian English’ forced upon poor Dev Patel who plays the youngest son of a New Delhi family who has opted to try to save a dilapidated hotel in Jaipur (but much of the film is actually Udaipur) that is part of the family holdings. He has no real skills and can only offer his engaging personality, but he successfully advertises the hotel online as a potential ‘rest home’ for UK pensioners. Six UK retirees (plus a seventh who opts for a hip replacement ‘outsourced’ from the NHS) turn up as the first guests. They all have to deal with the ‘shock’ of India, some graciously others not so well. The script offers few surprises and several reviewers have remarked on its similarity to Carry On Abroad.

Is it funny? On occasions, yes. Is it sad, moving? Ditto. But that’s the main problem with it. The parts are more than the whole. The overall story doesn’t make sense and the switches of tone need much more sensitive direction. I confess that I’ve avoided most of John Madden’s films, though I suspect I’ve seen some of his TV outings. (I’ve only seen Shakespeare in Love, which I didn’t like at all.) Is the film offensive in its representation of India and Indians? Not really – from my perspective. Most of the jokes are targeted at the Brit retirees. Apart from Dev Patel’s character Sonny, the relatively few Indian characters are played by local actors, including Lillete Dubey, a well-known star of Hindi cinema (best known in the UK for Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding) as Sonny’s mother. I have seen the film criticised on that score, but I think it is just a sloppy script. With seven major Brit characters and a complicated melodrama/farce narrative concerning Sonny, his beautiful girlfriend who works in a call centre (new Bollywood prospect Tena Desae) and his disapproving mother, there are just too many threads to tie together. This means that the Maggie Smith character has to transform from xenophobic grouch to wise woman who can organise everything in the hotel in just a few weeks and that Judi Dench, who begins as a ‘helpless widow’ with no technical skills, can become a daily blogger in a hotel with no telephone, never mind no WiFi connection. But this is a broad comedy you say – well, yes, good point, but the story involving Tom Wilkinson is quite different – which brings me to the look of the film.

The original novel by Deborah Moggach was titled These Foolish Things and was set in Bangalore. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read other things she’s written and watched TV adaptations from her. She’s a ‘Hampstead novelist’ who has also lived in Pakistan and presumably travelled in India. I can imagine that she got the tone right and the idea of outsourcing certain medical procedures to India is quite realistic, I think (it has been done?). But if so, a ‘metro’ and especially Bangalore (Bengalaru) sounds a better bet than Jaipur. Producer Graham Broadbent admitted that they moved the story to Rajasthan because it looks so pretty – and as photographed by Ben Davis it certainly does. So here we are in what the British audience will see as ‘tourist India’. Director of photography Ben Davis has several major British film credits to his name but nothing that suggests he is familiar with Indian parallel cinema. Yet some of the shots and compositions wouldn’t look out of place in a Shyam Benegal or Satyajit Ray film. Rajasthan is just too photogenic. But having offered us something so beautiful and so provocative the script soon returns us to the banal.

As for its reception by UK audiences, we saw it in a virtually empty 300 seat cinema on a Sunday night, but around the country it has obviously drawn audiences making it No 2 to current box office champ The Woman in Black. The obvious point is that this is the 2012 follow-up to The King’s Speech as a film for the over-50s or for a younger audience who think that these actors are ‘national treasures’. In itself this is no bad thing, but as with The King’s Speech, you just wish it was a better film On the other hand there are smart audiences who will claim that the film demeans India and that this is ‘tourist porn’ just as Slumdog Millionaire was ‘poverty porn’. It’s not, it wasn’t. It’s broad comedy based on stereotypes that carry a grain of truth. Looking on the bright side, it’s only one more week until Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna opens in the UK, also shot in Rajasthan and starring Dev Patel’s Slumdog co-star Frieda Pinto. I think Dev Patel is under-rated and I expect Pinto to triumph. I have complete faith in Winterbottom.

UK Film Festivals on now

We are always keen to promote film festivals in the UK, especially those outside London (where they seem to happen virtually every week). We are strong supporters of !Viva¡ at Cornerhouse in Manchester which opens today and runs to 18 March. If you are interested in Spanish language cinema this festival is a must with high profile guests and screenings of recent and classic Spanish and Latin-American films plus various education events and themed gallery displays. This year’s artist in Gallery 1 is Minerva Cuevas from Mexico.

March 8 sees Andy Willis presenting a One-Hour Intro on ‘The Exploitation Cinemas of Latin America‘ linked to screenings of the Cuban zombie film Juan de los muertos (2011 (which has been picked up by Metrodrome for a UK release) and the intriguing La hora cero (Venezuela 2010) mixing action with politics. On 11 March, Peter Buse and Nuria Triana Toribio offer a One Hour Intro on ‘Spanish Comedies‘ to support the screening of several comedies in the festival. We hope to report on a screening of Carlos Saura’s La caza (The Hunt) a classic from 1966 as well as Alex de la Iglesia’s Balada triste de trompeta (Spain 2010). You can download a full programme and a calendar of screenings from Spanish language education events are led by Carmen Herrero and supported by Instituto Cervantes. See BBC2’s The Culture Show tonight with Mark Kermode reporting on !Viva¡. Some of the !Viva¡ films this year will appear in UK distribution but most probably wont so don’t miss the festival if you can get to Manchester.

WOW – The Spanish-American War comes to Wales (and to Hereford and The Borderlines Festival)

The WOW Festival promises to bring World Cinema to every part of Wales in the Wales One World Festival that runs from 18 March to April 11 2012, offering film screenings in Mold and Cardigan as well as Aberystwyth, Swansea, Newport and Cardiff. The fascinating programme offers a mixture of established film artists with new films (John Sayles, Raul Ruiz, Michel Ocelot, Jafar Panahi (This Is Not a Film)) and some recent titles that have not been widely distributed (Las Acacias, Jan Svankmajer’s Surviving Life). There are a couple of classics – Naruse Mikio’s When A Woman Ascends the Stairs (Japan 1960) and Viktor Turin’s Turksib (USSR 1928) – with live music. There are some fascinating documentaries and fiction features addressing everyday life and social issues in Africa, Central and South East Asia and also the ‘audience award-winning’ Where Do We Go Now? from Nadine Labaki. The festival promises guests, competitions and food markets so if you live anywhere in Wales check it out on:

If you live in the Welsh borders you can also explore the UK’s largest ‘rural film festival’, The Borderlines Festival which is actually underway now (24 February-18 March) but also re-appears during May (4-20 May). The current festival, which includes many of the films described above for WOW is based mainly at the Courtyard in Hereford but also visits Ledbury, Ludlow, Leominster and other towns, villages and community halls across Herefordshire and Shropshire. The May dates refer to open air and further village screenings – full details on these available from 5th March.

Borderlines guest events still to come include BAFTA’s first ever event in a village hall at Moccas in Herefordshire. Bruce Robinson (The Killing Fields, Withnail and I, The Rum Diary) will be ‘In Conversation’ with the presenter of Radio 4’s Film Programme, Francine Stock, (now a Festival Patron) on Saturday 3 March.
 And the following day, Sunday 4th March there is an event celebrating BBC Radio 4’s The Archers in Bromyard.