Monthly Archives: September 2013

Exhibitors abandon films not in English?

I thought about going to see a film in Leeds later this week. I generally prefer British independents or subtitled films but I like to have a choice. When I looked through the cinema listings for Leeds I discovered that every single film on offer was in English – and virtually every one was a mainstream American or British film. Leeds is a major city. It has suffered from the lack of a specialised cinema such as those that once formed part of the BFI’s Regional Film Theatre network. The council still own the 1914 Hyde Park Cinema which often has excellent programmes (as attested by many of Keith’s posts) but with only a single screen it is sometimes dominated, as in this week, by a film like Rush. The Vue in the city centre usually has something different on offer such as a British independent or a Hindi film, but not this week.

Leeds has been promised an art cinema/specialised cinema for some time and at one point it looked as though a City Screen might open but it didn’t. Then earlier this year Everyman opened a three screen cinema in the new Trinity shopping centre. As expected, it is an expensive cinema (i.e. for the region at £11) but we did expect it to show some decent specialised films. The offer today is Diana, Rush, Insidious 2 and About Time. What a joke! The original Everyman in Hampstead was where I first saw most of the 1960s canon of art cinema. I weep when I think of what the name means now – stuffing your face with pizza watching Hollywood.

So with a population of 800,000 and something like 43 or more cinema seats, Leeds can’t offer a film in any other language than English tonight. The nearest sanity is in Bradford (The Great Beauty, Wadjda at the National Media Museum and several Hindi titles at Cineworld or the Odeon) or Sheffield for the Showroom. I read a comment somewhere in the last few weeks suggesting that subtitles are ‘difficult’ with the implication that cinemas find it hard to programme foreign language films. With this kind of attitude I seriously fear for the diversity of cinema in the UK.  No doubt we will return to this topic.

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza, Italy-France 2013)

Galatea Ranzi and Toni Servillo © DCM Filmverleih

Galatea Ranzi and Toni Servillo © DCM Filmverleih

During the first half of this film (that I knew had been a Cannes success earlier this year) I did wonder what I was going to get out of it – apart from a terrific soundtrack, production design and camerawork. At the end I was genuinely surprised that 140 minutes had passed. As I began to read about it I realised that I had taken in much more than I had been conscious of at the time. This is certainly highly intelligent and literate cinema focusing on a world I’ve never experienced, though as I’m roughly the same age as the central character I can understand his reactions to events whether they are dramatic, mundane or surreal. I’m still not sure whether I ‘enjoyed’ the film, but I was certainly engrossed by it.

This is the fifth film written and directed by the Neapolitan Paulo Sorrentino since 2001’s One Man Up. The two most successful and best known in the UK are The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008). The central character Jep Gambardella is played by Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo. Jep is a flâneur, a journalist who once wrote an acclaimed novel as a young man but who is now at 65 primarily a socialite who knows all the leading figures of Rome’s high society. As many commentators have suggested, The Great Beauty appears at first glance to draw on Fellini’s La dolce vita from 1960, especially given its mixture of parties and social events attended by the glitterati and religious leaders of Rome and located in beautiful gardens, palaces etc (as well as Jep’s own apartment by the Coliseum). But in the earlier film Marcello Mastroianni is a journalist in his thirties and Rome is a rejuvenated city enjoying the economic boom in post-war Italy. By contrast, Jep is 65 and his Rome appears defeated (if still beautiful, at least in its classical buildings). The Great Beauty is a film about death and regret – but it does end on a note that is both melancholy and potentially positive.

The Great Beauty is so stylish with its impeccable CinemaScope compositions and crane shots and its almost operatic use of music and staging that its layered narrative and snappy dialogue are easily lost in an aesthetic swoon. There is a distinct sense of loss and waste – quite literally in the characters who disappear. The film is so stuffed with literary references that without a great deal of background it isn’t possible to read the narrative fully. The film begins with what I think are the opening lines of Journey to the End of Night (1932) by Céline – a novel I don’t know and had to look up. Jep constantly refers to Flaubert and the concept of nothingness. As far as I can work out this nothingness is a condition both of his own life and of Rome itself. I recommend the article by Pasquale Iannone in Sight & Sound, October 2013 as helpful in trying to make sense of the film. Like Iannone, I was struck by several scenes which seemed indebted to Buñuel. Iannone refers to the animals in surreal settings but I also thought of the haute bourgeoisie ‘trapped’ in social situations at dinner, at parties etc. In the press notes Sorrentino discusses his collaboration with screenwriter Umberto Contarello and how he views Rome still as a superior kind of tourist attraction, even though he has made it his home. This idea is enunciated in Jep’s voiceover. Rome is indeed a city ‘eternal’ in its attractions and mysteries, seductive yet ’empty’. Sorrentino tells us that the film is in effect a paean to classical Italian cinema, its directors, stars and films. I don’t think I know that cinema well enough to comment but I did think, during the latter stages of the film, about an Italian director who was actually born in Rome (unlike Sorrentino or Fellini and Pasolini, both discussed by Sorrentino). Oddly, Roberto Rossellini’s Era notte a Roma (Italy 1960), although a completely different kind of film, does share some ingredients including the fading aristocracy and the power plays of the church.

I can appreciate that The Great Beauty would probably repay a second or even a third viewing. It also features a soundtrack that deserves further attention. The film seems to be doing reasonable business in the UK (nearly £500,000 after ten days). Perhaps the stir at Cannes in May has helped. Given the splendour of its sound and images I suspect that the Blu-ray may do well.

Inspector Montalbano

Luca Zingaretti is Inspector Montalbano

Luca Zingaretti is Inspector Montalbano (image from RAI)

(I wrote the first part of this post in October 2012 but didn’t publish it. Now that BBC4 are showing The Young Montalbano, it seems a good idea to post on both together.)

Inspector Montalbano is one of global television’s delights. In the UK these feature-length TV films have been dropped into the schedule for BBC4 almost as filler between the much more heavily-promoted Scandinavian crime fiction series. There is the impression that schedulers, critics and some audiences view the films as light summer relief before the return of ‘Nordic noir’ for the winter. I can understand this reaction but it shouldn’t prevent a proper appreciation of a rather different kind of crime fiction.

Inspector Salvatore Montalbano (‘Salvo’) is a creation of the Italian crime writer Andrea Camilleri and the character’s name is partly a reference to the Spanish crime writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, whose police investigator had a similar passion for good food. (Salvo has also been seen as partly based on Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.) The focus on gastronomy in the Italian series is part of an overall approach which includes a comedy element and a visual style that shows the Sicilian townscapes and landscapes to their best advantage.

There are now 22 crime novels in the series and around 26 TV films (including several ‘telescripts only’ as sources, so there should be more adaptations to come). Recently broadcast episodes in the UK are around 110 minutes in length and the series has been made in a leisurely fashion so that the Italian producers (the public service broadcaster RAI plus the Swedish PSB Sveriges Television – SVT) have made roughly two per year since 1999. Each film begins with an aerial sequence showing the Sicilian location – an attractive coastal town with a harbour. This is reminiscent of the openings of US TV series like CSI, except it’s much sunnier. The sunny aspect is contrasted to some extent with the dark, orchestral score with its Hitchcockian undertones – as well as what I take to be some elements of Arab music, since the Moorish influence on Sicily was strong. Salvo has a house virtually on the beach and he often swims in the sea or gazes from his veranda. The beach has also served as the location of various crimes – in recent episodes Salvo has found a dead horse, a corpse in the water and watched a seagull die and fall to the sand a few feet away. Salvo has a housekeeper, who cooks him delicious meals (he also has a favourite restaurant where he dines seemingly every working day). His long-term girlfriend, Livia, is based in Northern Italy and she visits him occasionally, flying in from Genoa. Salvo lives well – he’s nothing like Wallander or the harassed Danish investigators. Beautiful women crop up in most episodes. They are charmed by Salvo but they also turn the tables on him. As well as Livia he also has a locally-based female friend who appears in several episodes.

According to Wikipedia, the fictitious town of ‘Vigata’ is created from locations in the inland city of Ragusa and the coastal towns of Punta Secca and Licata. In the novels it is the author’s own town of Porto Empedocle with Agrigento acting as the district headquarters of ‘Montelusa’. The stories are set very precisely in this area of Southern Sicily and the locations are not just backgrounds but esssential for the representation of local culture – but also the kinds of criminal activity that might happen here (such as the people smuggling). The locations also act as a form of ‘eye-candy’, competing with Salvo’s food and his very beautiful female companions. One of the possible reasons why the series is dismissed is the way in which comedy works in the series. Catarella, the policeman with a form of ‘name dyslexia’, is very broad as a comic character. The writing is sympathetic towards this character and in more than one episode his ridiculous behaviour is revealed to mask a set of observational skills – and a network of personal contacts. Perhaps more significantly, Salvo is a sophisticated man who tolerates most of his colleagues and the local officials with whom he works. He only has two completely reliable colleagues. One is his ‘go to’ detective Fazio and the other is a local journalist. The others are fair game for his wit, especially the local lothario and Salvo’s second-in-command, Mimì. Salvo’s approach is a little ‘war-weary’ as he deals with his superiors located in Montelusa, the local Mafia families or the church authorities. Within Vigata itself, Salvo is clearly in charge.

The unusual mixture of elements in the series is seen most clearly in the handling of violent/complex action sequences. These seem to me to be handled in a deliberately inept and unrealistic manner, comical in their clumsiness and the way in which Salvo is put into danger. It’s almost as if the writers and directors are bored with the idea of having to show a fight and would much rather get back to the chat, the food and the beautiful women. However, at the same time the stories are serious and intelligent, especially in the characterisation of the criminals and their victims, many of whom in a small community are known to Salvo or to one of his men or to his friends and acquaintances. The themes of the stories delve into the lives of contemporary Sicilians and there is also a specific interest in stories that have a historical basis accessible via elderly characters and/or through the travels of Sicilians returning from abroad. This historical perspective is something I’ve noticed in Italian crime fiction more generally.

Michele Riondino as Salvo Montalbano and Andrea Tidona as the Fazio senior (from http://www.palomaronline.com/en/miniserietv/il-giovane-montalbano)

Michele Riondino as Salvo Montalbano and Andrea Tidona as Fazio senior (from http://www.palomaronline.com/en/miniserietv/il-giovane-montalbano)

The success of the series both in Italy and overseas has prompted a ‘prequel’ series of The Young Montalbano. This is a trait recognisable from other long-running series (as are the walking tours around ‘Montalbano’s Sicily’) with the UK’s ‘Young Morse’ series, Endeavoura good recent example. The Young Montalbano sets itself a significant problem in ‘realist’ terms because it goes back to only 1990 and presents us with a young Inspector moving to Vigata for his first job as ‘Commissario’ in complete charge of a local police station. Michele Riondino has the task of representing the character played by Luca Zingaretti as he might have been twenty years earlier – but because the original series has run for 13 years, Zingaretti’s Salvo first appeared in 1999. Perhaps wisely, the producers have gone for an actor who appears physically different, but who manages to capture the persona very well. The first three of six episodes in the first series of the prequel reveal that Salvo had known Vigata from his childhood. He is shown as very formal with his colleagues, quickly recognising Fazio senior’s qualities (his son appears in episode 2) and welcoming Catarella with all his faults. We are also introduced to Livia and witness the first meeting of Salvo and Mimi.

Sarah Felberbaum as Livia

Sarah Felberbaum as Livia

I’m looking forward to the remaining three episodes. I can’t quite put my finger on why the various elements fit together so well. It must be the case that a prequel attracts and repels viewers familiar with the original series in equal measure. The impact is greater because we think we know the characters and then either we appreciate knowing more or we object if we don’t think that the earlier incarnations are believable. Andrea Camilleri was involved in writing all six episodes and he has clearly thought about his characters. In episode 3, Salvo and Mimi both behave badly at times, as young men do and this is the focus for comedy. The humour in the series works to ‘humanise’ the characters rather than making the series lightweight. I feel that the subtle blend of comedy and drama produces intelligent entertainment. As Autumn beckons, I appreciate the chance to visit this corner of Sicily.

All in the Family – a film evening class

The classic tableau shot of the Edwards family at the beginning of The Searchers.

One of the classic tableau shots of the Edwards family in The Searchers.

This evening class at the National Media Museum in Bradford offers the chance to study three films currently on release and to explore how ideas about the family can be exploited to develop different kinds of film narrative and different genres. There are seven sessions on Wednesday evenings from 25 September, 18.15 – 20.15.

The three films are Looking for Hortense, Metro Manila and Like Father, Like Son – all screened in full in the museum’s cinemas with a short introduction.

The first of these films is a comedy drama set amongst the ‘creative/academic’ bourgeoisie of Paris in which family relationships constrain and ‘trip up’ the central character with comic effects. The second becomes a genre thriller when it tests what characters will do to keep the family together. The final film is a form of family melodrama/relationship drama. Since the films come from different filmmaking cultures (France, Philippines/UK and Japan) there will also be the opportunity to explore the extent to which genres and representations of the family are ‘universal’ or heavily skewed by ‘local’ cultural considerations. We’ll also consider a range of other films that use the family as an important driver of the narrative. The image at the head of this posting refers to the famous John Ford Western in which Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) searches obsessively for his two nieces who have been taken by a Comanche raiding party.

A course outline can be downloaded here: (pdf) FamilyCourseProg

We’ll try to post some of the handouts here over the next few weeks and also to discuss some of the issues that arise.

1,000 posts and counting

(From http://jigsawabacus.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/mystery-of-abacus/) An abacus is an ancient Chinese form of counting widely used in Asia.

(From http://jigsawabacus.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/mystery-of-abacus/) An abacus is an ancient Chinese form of counting widely used in Asia.

With the flurry of postings last week, The Case for Global Film passed 1,000 individual postings. The 1,000th post was on Vicky Donor. Our stats tell us that we have a regular group of visitors that is steadily growing but that most of you visit us when you are looking for something specific on a film and on average you visit just under 2 separate postings on your visit. Perhaps you aren’t aware of the vast array of material (approaching 1 million words and thousands of images) that we hold?

The best way to get the most out of this blog is to have a quick look at the How to navigate this site page and discover how to search through the material.

We are moving forward onto the next 1,000 now, so watch this space! Suggestions for better ways of organising the material are always welcome.

Vicky Donor (India 2012)

Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam, the attractive young leads of 'Vicky Donor'

Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam, the attractive young leads of ‘Vicky Donor’

Vicky Donor is a successful example of the ‘New Bollywood’ trend. With a relatively small budget and an ‘edgy’ theme it pleased both critics and popular audiences and became a hit. Produced by the Bollywood star John Abraham, it is the work of the pairing of writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar, the latter pair first meeting in the advertising industry. The trio have recently worked on Madras Cafe, a critical success, albeit much more controversial. Since its release was abandoned by my local multiplex chain, I’ll have to wait to see it but on the evidence of Vicky Donor, it should be worth seeking out. Perhaps, like Vicky Donor, it will get an airing on Channel 4 in the UK?

The ‘taboo’ in Vicky Donor is the subject of sperm donation and infertility treatment – a subject for comedy in many film cultures I think and Vicky Donor has been seen as similar to the Québécois film Starbuck from 2011 (now being remade in Hollywood). However, the Indian cultural context is quite different and what we get here is a ‘romantic comedy-drama’. Vicky is a young unemployed man living quite comfortably off his hard-working mother who runs a beauty parlour in the Punjabi ‘colony’ district of Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. One day he is spotted by Dr. Chaddha (veteran actor Annu Kapoor) who runs an ailing fertility clinic which needs to find a new donor of high quality sperm as soon as possible. Dr. Chaddha can tell just by looking at his face that Vicky will have a high sperm count. In one of the sensitive themes explored in the film we learn that Chaddha is looking for his ‘Alexander’ – a sperm donor who carries the genes of the Macedonian general who arrived in what is now the Punjab in 326 BC. This ‘Alexander’ represents what the subtitles call the ‘Pure Aryan’ legacy, a tricky concept for European audiences and many Indians I think. In the context, I would let this go but a serious drama around this issue would be interesting.

Vicky takes some persuading to become a donor but eventually the monetary rewards win him over and the next phase of the narrative deals with his meeting and courtship with Ashima, the rather aloof young woman at his local bank. I confess that I found the first part of the narrative rather slow and hard to get into but when the romance begins it picks up markedly. I realise now that it is important to set up the specifics of the Punjabi community. Vicky lives with his mother and his grandmother – a remarkably ‘progressive’ woman by comparison with her daughter. Ashima is a Bengali, so the second ‘sensitive’ issue is the play on the stereotypes of Punjabi and Bengali life. I was reminded of the Chetan Bhagat novel 2 States where the couple comprise Punjabi boy and Tamil girl. My impression is that Punjabis, Bengalis and Tamils are the most circulated regional identities in Indian popular culture. Interestingly writer Chaturvedi and director Sircar are from Punjab and West Bengal, but they have exchanged genders in creating the two lead characters. I was quite taken with the young couple and I think part of the charm of the film is that they were not stars (though the film’s success has now helped them get more lead roles. Ayushmann Khurrana has come out of TV where he has been a presenter and VJ. Yami Gautam similarly began in TV (ads and soaps) and this was her first Hindi film.

The final part of the film deals with the fall-out of the revelation of Vicky’s earlier ‘career’. By this stage I was enjoying the film very much and I thought the ending, though conventional, worked well. Overall, Vicky Donor does confirm the emergence of a new kind of Bollywood film. There is more reference to the realism of the lives depicted (at least in terms of regional culture) and the central issue is handled with some intelligence (although there does appear to be a major plot hole in the resolution). There are eight songs carefully integrated in the action, including this one sung by Ayushmann Khurrana that acts as a promo for the film – enjoy!:

Metro Manila (Philippines/UK 2013)

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, jake, Robin Foster

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, Jake Macapagal, Robin Foster

Cinema 2 in Cornerhouse Manchester was the intimate venue for a preview of Metro Manila with support from BAFTA North. The screening attracted an enthusiastic audience including members of the local Filipino community and afterwards Andy Willis, Reader in Film Studies at Salford University, hosted a Q&A with writer-director Sean Ellis, lead actor Jake Macapagal and music composer Robin Foster.

The script for Metro Manila was written by Sean Ellis and Frank E. Flowers in English and then translated into Tagalog more or less as it was shot. The story was developed from an incident witnessed by Ellis during his first visit to Manila. The cast was recruited locally, led by Jake Macapagal, a local theatre actor. Sean Ellis, who has a background first as a photographer and then as an award-winning shorts director (this is his third feature), shot the film himself. Its first appearance was at Sundance in January 2013 where it won the Audience Award. Since then it has played in France and Belgium. It opens in the UK on September 20th and then has a wide release in the Philippines in October. Sean Ellis suggested that his film “slides from world cinema into a genre thriller”. I was troubled by this statement as ‘world cinema’ still seems like a spurious term – more on this below.

The story is universal and Ellis agreed with an audience comment that it could have been set anywhere. The treatment however places it firmly in Manila. Oscar and Mai and their two small children are forced to leave rural Philippines when the price they receive for the rice they have grown drops dramatically. They travel to the capital in the hope of finding work and they are ripped off like every ‘country’ couple who don’t have friends or family to help them. Mai is forced to take a job in a sleazy bar and Oscar eventually finds employment as a security guard when a recruiter realises that this applicant has served time on military service. Everything seems to be going well at this point – but perhaps too well? Against his will, Oscar finds himself in a dangerous situation with little room for manoeuvre. The final third of the film leads us into familiar crime thriller territory, but there is a further plot twist which returns attention to the social question about rural poverty and the terrors of the big city.

I should say straightaway that the film, as a production, is a remarkable achievement. Language was clearly a key issue. Ellis doesn’t speak Tagalog and the kind of language used in commercial Filipino film and television did not seem appropriate (it’s a conventional language used for popular film and television melodramas). Jake Macapagal explained that the cast tried to use the street language of Manila as seemed appropriate in translating the script. I found this fascinating as Ellis explained that the film was edited for the subtitling – in other words, shots would be chosen with start and end points in the edit, not for the flow of the scene, but because of the time needed to screen the subtitles. Of course, for a predominantly English audience the film looked fine. The Filipino audience members said that they could follow both dialogue and titles. The camerawork, performance and music all worked well and the story is gripping all the way through. My only hesitancy was over the narrative resolution (which I won’t spoil). I find the concept of ‘world cinema’ to ‘crime thriller’ problematic. It’s ‘world cinema’ I don’t like and what it implies (a film intended to be seen mainly in international festivals and art cinemas). I would prefer the film to have a consistent style and it was the case that as the thriller narrative developed we lost some of the sense of ‘experiencing’ the city that came over so strongly in the opening scenes.

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for Ong (John Arcilla)

The response to Metro Manila so far has, not surprisingly, made comparisons with the other two titles involving young British directors making independent features outside the UK in challenging locations. Gareth Evans’ Indonesian-set The Raid (2011) and Gareth Edwards’ Mexico-set Monsters (2010) are both more clearly identifiable as genre pictures. I haven’t seen The Raid but the reports I have read suggest that it is possibly more ‘rooted’ in Indonesian popular culture than Monsters with its American couple in Mexico. It’s sad that Rebelle (War Witch, Canada 2011) another film by a Western/’Northern’ filmmaker, this time set in Africa, hasn’t been released in the UK. Watching it in the same Cornerhouse screen last year as part of the ‘French Connection’ season, it struck me as completely successful and arguably melding what Ellis refers to as ‘world cinema’ and the thriller. I guess the central question about Metro Manila is whether the thriller elements interfere in any way with the sense of authenticity that the realist street approach achieves in the first third of the film.

I confess to relatively little knowledge of Filipino culture and I wish I knew more. In particular, I wish I knew more about the ‘creolisation’ of local culture following Spanish colonialism and then American economic colonialism. In the opening scenes of Metro Manila (see the trailer below) the rice paddies farmed by Oscar and Mia are located in a landscape that reminded me of scenes from Latin-American films – an effect reinforced by the gaudily decorated truck that took them to Manila. In the Q&A we learned that the ‘street version’ of Tagalog includes both Spanish and English words and the film includes several important references to Catholicism that I’d like to know more about in its Filipino setting.

I’ve suggested a couple of possible reservations about the film but I want to recommend the film strongly. I plan to watch it again soon and I’ll be paying more attention to the camerawork and to the narrative structure – I realised during the final sequences that the structure is quite complex with a voiceover and flashbacks that I didn’t fully work out.

Thanks to Rachel Hayward, Andy Willis and his guests and all the Cornerhouse staff who put on this excellent session.

Here’s the French trailer (there isn’t any dialogue in it) which represents the film well: