Category Archives: UK

The Act of Killing (Director’s Cut)

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Denmark/Norway/UK (2012). Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer

I doubt you will ever see a documentary like this again. And you may never experience a nightmare quite like it.  Imagine a film-maker gaining the trust of the surviving members of a death squad from an earlier generation, giving them the freedom to tell their story – not as talking heads – but by re-enacting their “interrogations” and executions, with reference to their choice of  Hollywood cinematic genre: noir or camp musical, for example.  It really does put you into a nightmare: shocking, sickening and disturbing but also unfathomably surreal. Cinematically, there is genius at work and in getting to the truth it is both brave and important. But it leaves you with the troubled queasiness of balancing on a very high moral tightrope.

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In 2002, Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia to talk to and film survivors of the relatively unknown 1965-66 cleansing of “communists” and ethnic Chinese. An intelligent man, a good man of principle, who wanted to publicise a neglected, dark episode in history, he was frustrated in his attempts to put together the story of the victims and their families. But his research revealed an astonishing openness from the perpetrators. What became clear, almost 50 tears on, is an environment of fear for most people but casual impunity, a sort of celebrity status, for the subjects of the film. But, at the same time, the complexity, the ambition, of Oppenheimer’s project changed dramatically, from documentation to an attempt to explain the motives behind man’s inhumanity to man.

What we learn is at times unbearably gruesome. But, it is also a truism to say that “all acts of evil are perpetrated by human beings”. The difficulty for Oppenheimer – and this is difficult stuff – is that he, of course, finds that he can’t really give us much more than the little we know already about cruelty’s motives – under the right (wrong) circumstances, you or I or the next-door neighbour, etc. But he is in so very deep that the piece turns into an emotionally exhausting pursuit of signs of remorse. It becomes a self-fulfilling process of humanisation.

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The credits show that the vast majority of those working on the film on location have asked to remain anonymous.  This speaks volumes about the environment in which Oppenheimer worked and his bravery.  It is a unique film that uncovers the truth in a way that is utterly compelling while, simultaneously, making the audience want to run for the exit. At the same time, Oppenheimer may have, unintentionally, overstepped a line.  It is now a couple of weeks since I saw the film. It has stayed with me, but my emotional response has been anything but simple. What I am left with is an overwhelming sadness.

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Stoker

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United States/United Kingdom (2013). Dir. Park Chan-wook.

Full of sound and fury, Stoker signifies everything. Or rather, in Stoker’s cinematic universe, everything signifies. After all, Park Chan-wook’s newest (and first in the English language) is wildly, almost overwhelmingly cinematic, a strange film whose tightly-controlled palette of pastels is so beautifully saturated that they sometimes cease to be pastels at all, and whose every surface is so intensely polished that they don’t so much conceal depth as produce a different, weirder variety of depth, of reflections and shadows.

In a way, it’s the perfect thriller, but it’s also the perfect subversion of that genre. On her 18th birthday, the father of India (Mia Wasikowska) dies mysteriously. Attending his funeral is one Charlie Stoker, who uncannily resembles a younger, more handsome version of the deceased, and indeed whose very existence as the deceased’s younger brother was hitherto unknown to the surviving Stokers. Afterwards, he stays with the family at their creepily immaculate manor in rural Connecticut, professedly taking time off from “commitments in Europe” to help out in his late brother’s absence. The ensuing, dread-drenched family mystery is built entirely of stuff that would be only subliminal detritus in another, more typical murder mystery.

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To be clear, I’m talking about the Freudian stuff. And the film, too, makes this very clear — the breathtaking atmospherics produce an effect of the viewer having stepped out of Plato’s cave and into some realm of pure, Oedipal archetypes. So instead of having an unspoken, incestuous subtext, the film — and thereby not entirely unlike Park’s Oldboy — is fairly blatantly about incest! And instead of featuring a shower scene with a Pyscho-style sense of repressed sexuality, this film’s shower scene is… well, I won’t spoil it.

Speaking of Hitchcock, Matthew Goode plays Charlie with a (way-more-than-)”not quite right” charm easily worthy of Norman Bates. Like Psycho, Stoker isn’t so much a movie of compassionate, human performance as of uncannily robotic anti-acting. (That said, Nicole Kidman’s wonderfully jarring take on this as India’s distant mother, is more Lynch than Hitchcock). And although Mia Wasikowska’s role as the hypersensitive India initially seems to veer toward a young adult fiction-ish style of adolescent disaffection, much of the film’s intoxicating momentum comes from the gradual realization — paralleling her transition to adulthood — that our 18-year-old protagonist might not be as horrified at the events taking place around her as the typical thriller has taught us to expect.

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Okay, sure: the film’s demonic coming-of-age storyline is less an eye-opening exploration of authenticity and destiny, and more a delightful pastiche of those things. But even the campiest of parodies can’t help but contain a slippery kernel of the truth — and to be sure, this is far from the campiest of parodies. Instead, and not unlike, um, embracing your true nature as an incestuous spree murderer, Stoker provides the guiltiest of pleasures, and the guilt doesn’t entirely come from the fact that it’s so much goddamn fun to experience.

Also by Park Chan-wook:

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

Oldboy (2004)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

Joint Security Area (2000)

Future My Love

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UK-Sweden (2012).  Dir: Maja Borg, Scr: Maja Borg

When Jacque Fresco met Einstein, “he just wanted to talk about Boolean geometry”.  He wasn’t interested in people.  It was symptomatic to Jacque of our cultural inability to apply science for the benefit of man.  Jacque is an industrial designer, industrial engineer and “futurist” and one of the three stars of Future My Love, a film audiences cannot help but applaud.  They applaud because it makes them think: “There might be a better way”.  But, for us, it deserves applause because it is a brave, beautiful and moving film that succeeds despite there being no easy categorization for it.  It is a poem about (lost) love, a road-movie and an essay, with music that moves both the soul and the feet, narrated gently in the sweetest Swedish/Scottish accent.  At its core is an aesthete’s eye, sharp intelligence and the most disarming humility and honesty.

Maja Borg was researching content for a film critique of the economic system when the financial crisis hit.  At about the same time, her long-term personal relationship broke down.  It had a profound effect on her – she felt incomplete: “ Yours is not the kind of love you can learn to live without”; she was bitter and felt betrayed, “How could you not tell me of your pregnancy?”; she was diffident and vulnerable, “If my way of loving makes me lose the people I love…”.  The film is (literally) a labour of love, a putting together of the pieces over several years, an interwoven narrative in which the personal journey is critical to the way she sees the flaws of a system we are wedded to and the challenge of change.  We sense she was angry, but now more thoughtful.

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Maja hitches to Venus – the town: three churches, no bars – to spend time with Jacque, now 93 years old, who set up The Venus Project with Roxanne Meadows to design and develop a community of the future.  He is fascinating in his passionate, steadfast view of the need to apply science and technology to the design of a better society, based on collective ownership of the world’s resources by the world’s people.  But he believes nothing will change until the old order collapses.  Footage of Jacque, filmed in HD colour, is blended with sections of archive film and lovingly, dreamily shot Super 8, mainly black and white, sequences of Maja’s former lover, the second star of the film.  It is the depth of this layering, the abstraction and parallel narrative that makes the film so much stronger than it would be as a simple, linear piece on the economic system.

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But the main star is Maja herself.  She doesn’t have all the answers, saying, “If we can do this much damage, we can do so much good”, but she is confidently unafraid of technology and knows that we need more than just to be nice to each other.  So, while we worry – as does her mother – that she has chosen a difficult path for herself, we leave the cinema with the feeling that Maja might just change the world. We hope she does.

Berberian Sound Studio

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UK (2012), Dir: Peter Strickland, Scr: Peter Strickland

It has the prosaic sound of a working title.  But, it does put you in mind of something – obsessive hobbyists, maybe.  We’re beginning to love Peter Strickland and he has pulled off, in this lovingly made period piece, a many-layered, genre-defying and richly imaginative gem.  It’s not a horror film – a film with a central character called Gilderoy, from Dorking, can’t really be setting out to terrify us witless – but it is about horror films and what went in to making them.  It’s a tribute, a satire, it’s funny, it’s also a dark Heart of Darkness but, most of all it’s a love-poem.

Preceded by his reputation as a magician with sound, Gilderoy arrives in Italy to lead the post-production sound team in the studio of an extreme 1970’s giallo low-budget horror film: The Equestrian Vortex.  A film he thinks is about horses is actually an explicit, bloody gore-fest.  It’s not at all clear how he got the job as his experience seems to be in capturing the sounds of nature for public information films about the countryside in the South East of England and his awkward, introverted personality couldn’t contrast more with the continental sophistication and cocky machismo of the producer and director.  But as a true craftsman, Gilderoy applies himself day and night to his work. And he is a magician: his “UFO”, using a lightbulb and a sheet has the team enraptured; an actress almost loses herself when she hears her voice transformed by his complex and sculptural set up of the tape loop of a Watkins Copycat echo machine, and most importantly; he finds the perfect fruit or vegetable facsimile – when torn, hacked or smashed on the ground – for the sound of flesh being burned or impaled and bone being crushed.

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We sometimes see Gilderoy in his room at night: working at his portable tape recorder, or reading letters from his mum updating him on the activities of the wildlife in their garden.  Otherwise, the film is set entirely in the claustrophobic studio and adjoining corridors, which feel subterranean.  As we see Gilderoy frustrated in his requests for expense reimbursement, we feel he is being trapped, not short-changed.  We never see any of the Equestrian Vortex itself, but read outrageous snippets of transcript and see Gilderoy’s shocked, disbelieving and sickened reaction to its images.  We feel the pressure on the actresses who, if the scream is just not blood-curdling enough after so many takes, can be replaced.  And so, after multiple melon-chopping takes of his own, we witness Gilderoy, the homesick innocent alone in a malevolent place, gradually lose touch with reality.

Strickland has written the perfect role for Toby Jones, who we could watch for hours.  He also has attended to the detail of the seventies Italian shocker: the opening credits are authentically recreated by designer Julian House as is the mix of atonal synthesizer, dreamy organ and ethereal voices put together by James Cargill, co-founder of Broadcast, for the soundtrack.  The wardrobe and sexism are also made authentically seventies.  But the love-poem is not to those horror films, but to a lost creativity; to the nerdy, eccentric, innocent labour involved; to the sheets of carefully hand-written plans; to the guy whose job was to do the aroused-goblin noise into a microphone; to analogue days when sound itself was as physical as the substantial but intricate machines that made it –  the Revox, the Copycat, the portable reel-to-reel, the dial showing the sound wave and all the knobs and buttons and reels and tape.  We marvel at it, too.

So, we feel reassured that the film did not set out to scare us witless.  But, then again, there is something a little dark-arts about all those analogue machines, isn’t there?  And, as for Gilderoy, maybe the darkness was hidden in him all the time and not due to those nasty foreign film-makers.  I wonder.

Also by Peter Strickland:

Katalin Varga (2009)

PS A Word on Broadcast

Its impossible to say something about this film without a word on Broadcast.  Don’t think “experimental”.  Start by placing yourself back in the 60’s and imagining what bands then thought the future might sound like.  Then layer on a strange, captivating mix of The BBC Radiophonic workshop, Ennio Morricone, early synthesizer sounds, forgotten film soundtracks and psychedelia, with a touch of eeriness, held together beautifully by a voice of innocence and purity.  That was Broadcast, formed in 1995 in Birmingham, UK.  Their signer, Trish Keenan – cool, Nico-like on-stage; all mischief, curiosity and warmth off-stage – died on 14 January 2011 of pneumonia related to H1N1 bird flu, contracted while on tour.  She was 42.  A national treasure.  So sadly missed.

Julian House of Ghost Box, was a close collaborator with Broadcast.  Initially in their “Hammer horror dream collage where Broadcast play the role of the guest band at the mansion drug party by night and a science-worshipping Eloi possessed by 3/4 rhythms by day” phase.

Song For Marion

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UK (2012). Dir: Paul Andrew Williams, Scr: Paul Andrew Williams

The main reason I went to see this is because I know someone called Marion.  Sentimental, I know.  It’s like the logic behind my mother’s annual gamble on the horses – there’s a reference to a distant Scottish relative in the name of a horse at 100/1.  My mother never wins.  So it was with this film.  Don’t get taken in by any comparisons with Young@Heart, a moving, inspired and inspiring documentary.  This one has no energy, no characters, a predictable story, an uncomfortably feeble end and it wont make you laugh when you’re supposed to.  It’s the story of a misanthropic old man, Arthur played by Terence Stamp, whose dying wife, Marion, chooses to spend much of what time is left singing with a local choir of pensioners (The OAPz), led by the bubbly Elizabeth, played by Gemma Arterton.  Arthur doesn’t express feeling well, but hates the choir, unable to understand why Marion is wasting her time.  Why does Marion find it fun?  You’ve guessed it, Elizabeth gets them to sing cool, modern songs.  The problem with that key joke – they sing The Ace Of Spades by Motorhead and Salt’n’Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sexis that it is too obvious to be funny and the songs sound silly when translated to 15-strong local choir of no obvious singing talent-with-piano.  They really don’t sound much better the second time with long-haired kid on guitar and someone banging on the drums, by which time the joke really has worn thin.  In the aftermath of Marion’s death, a scene directed movingly, the story develops to the mandatory singing competition entirely as expected.

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I can’t fault the actors, especially Vanessa Redgrave as Marion, for trying hard to bring something to the film, but their material is so very thin.  Terence Stamp broods well, helped by his extraordinary eyes, but he is never convincing as the ordinary working-class bloke.  He, too, seemed to be wishing he was in a theatre, where he could do some proper acting.  And, call me old-fashioned, but I was struck at how little musicality there is in any of the singing.

PS The other reason I went to see this is because it’s by Paul Andrew Williams, director of the tense, pacy and atmospheric London to Brighton.  He’ll be fine with his next film.

Also by Paul Andrew Williams:

London to Brighton (2006)

Ginger and Rosa

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UK 2012. Dir: Sally Potter. Scr: Sally Potter

When we sit down to watch a film by the intelligent, arch-stylist Sally Potter our expectations are high.  And so, any disappointment we might feel has to be seen in the context of the highest standards.  Set in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is the story of adolescent Ginger, a lover of logic, ideas and poetry, growing up with a philandering, academic father and long-suffering ex-artist mother, and the increasingly complex and divergent relationship she has with lifelong friend Rosa.  Ginger is acutely sensitive to the existential terror of the risk of nuclear war, becoming more deeply involved as an activist, while Rosa becomes increasingly aware of her blossoming sexuality.

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The film has a rather autobiographical feel and at its core is a sensitive exploration of the need for security, the importance of friendships outside the family for support and the many facets of female relationships, from love to betrayal.  Elle Fanning, as Ginger, is outstanding as the determined, questioning but fragile Ginger.  Both her enthusiasm and despair are infectious.  But the film-making leaves us outside: some of the casting is strange – the mother is hardly believable and the accents are just plain wierd; the script is text-booky and unnatural, and; the events of the story are pretty dull, including the awkward “climax”.

Also by Sally Potter:

Rage (2009)

Yes (2004)

The Man Who Cried (2000)

The Tango Lesson (1997)

Orlando (1992)