Author Archives: Cath L

PPH @ LFF: Key of Life (Kagi-Dorobou no Method) | review

Choosing which films to see out of the hundreds at the BFI London Film Festival is never an easy task, but one key bit of information definitely helps me prioritise – whether the film’s already got a UK distributor or not. I always pick at least one foreign film or documentary that I may never get another chance to see, usually from Asia, often from Japan. They’re safe bets to me, considering the country’s rich cinematic history, and they provide refreshing breaks from Eurocentric perspectives. My personal opinion is that many modern Japanese cultural products, from anime to music to cinema, thoughtfully mix Western influences and Eastern values so that the experience is both enticingly unique and broadly accessible.

This year I chose director-screenwriter Kenji Uchida’s entertaining tragicomedy Key of Life, a Japanese-style riff on Trading Places in which Sakurai (Masato Sakai), a down-and-out actor, opportunistically steals an amnesaic’s identity. Sakurai’s life is in shambles – he owes everyone money and the ex-girlfriend he still loves is engaged. Likably pathetic, he even fails at committing suicide. When Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) slips and hits his head in a bathhouse, a shortcut for restarting Sakurai’s life literally falls at his feet. It’s extra-lucky that Kondo happens to be quite wealthy. Kondo-as-Sakurai chances upon a bit of luck too in befriending Kanae, a nerdy magazine editor, at the hospital. She is on an endearing-yet-vaguely-pitiable mission to get married before her ill father dies, and discovers that it’s convenient to get to know someone while he is trying to rediscover himself. It’s all fun and games until the real Sakurai stumbles across the source of Kondo’s wealth – it turns out that he’s an assassin for the mob, and his last job wasn’t quite finished… thus the fates of these three previously isolated figures are suddenly tied together, and they’re left testing when their collective luck will finally run out.

The world the film portrays is wacky, yet recognisably modern and cynical; apart from the main trio, everyone makes selfish decisions that destroy relationships and are largely driven by pride and materialism. That backdrop is vital, as it facilitates us rooting for these naive principal characters while they earnestly fumble through these unusual circumstances. We trust them enough to go along for the ride, happy to be surprised at the twists and turns.

But most importantly, there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as the two men play with their new identities. Most of the credit goes to Kagawa’s bravura performance as Kondo, deftly switching between the cold, professional assassin to the vulnerable amnesic; Sakai seems outclassed, too much of a ham, but in fairness, his character is supposed to be a failed actor. Key of Life orchestrates its many tonal shifts skilfully, evoking an enjoyable range of emotions. Uchida’s well-crafted, well-executed comedy is well-worth a watch. And next time you’re perusing a film festival programme, keep an eye out for good foreign films without distribution deals.

Take This Waltz | review

Two familiar female screen archetypes are the clever-yet-uptight brunette and the flighty-yet-vulnerable blonde – and I bet that your sympathies lean heavily towards one more than the other. Do you favour Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse (or Cher in Clueless if you’d rather)? A more modern pairing would be the neurotic Liz Lemon and diva Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock. Better yet, did you ever watch Dawson’s Creek’s in the late ‘90s? If you were Dawson, would you pick Joey (Katie Holmes) or Jen (Michelle Williams)?

Well, I rooted for Joey. And if you think similarly, you might struggle a bit with this film. Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams, and written and directed by Sarah Polley, is very blonde. It’s a bit like watching a spinoff of Dawson’s Creek starring Jen, fast forwarded 10 years, and on HBO.

In Take This Waltz, Margot (Michelle Williams), a married 28-year-old, has a chance encounter with a frustrating-but-attractive man (Luke Kirby) who just happens to live across the street. She’s a bit restless and impetuous, while her unassuming husband (Seth Rogan) is quite comfortable with their sickeningly adorable relationship. Who, we wonder, will she choose in the end?

The camera is sympathetic to Margot, catching her in golden light and framing her with fetish-y close ups. Sadly, it feels more like watching an uber-girly Michelle Williams rather than a new character, because no names are mentioned in the first quarter of the film. I ended up associating the nameless characters with their actors’ past roles, instead of getting engrossed in the film’s world.

Luckily, the film is well-cast. Williams, who usually tends toward playing characters with darker troubles than this, is charmingly naive. Rogan, in a rare dramatic role, is endearing, though his quips pack a much softer punch in this context. The relatively unknown Kirby fits as the mysterious love interest, and his penetrating stares manage to project more longing than creepiness. But the real delight is Sarah Silverman as Margot’s spirited sister-in-law Geri. She plays a recovering alcoholic, which is perfect for her brand of dark humour laced with vulnerability. It’s a relief when she’s onscreen to cut through the cuteness that pervades the film.

Unfortunately, the film’s flighty tone definitely results in some head-askance moments. It’s consciously quirky, tries too hard, and the rhythm is sometimes forced. The tonal shifts in several scenes repeat the same problematic pattern; they start saccharine until you can’t take any more, abruptly turn darkly humorous, then try to end on a genuine note. Hence the Dawson’s Creek comparison – such moments resonate on more of a TV-movie level.

Aside from these issues, Take this Waltz is largely beguiling. It’s smartly structured, giving the characters just the right amount of weight. It also manages to deal satisfyingly and honestly with the moral complications that infidelity arouses. Plus it looks fantastic, showcasing a vibrant Toronto in the summertime – the bright colours and hazy light suit the unabashedly sweet tone of the film. It achieves several striking contrasts between scenes to shift textures; the nighttime pool scene and the fairground rides are particularly atmospheric. And the fitting soundtrack is populated by acoustic guitars, xylophones and flutes to keep the mood wistful.

So should you see it? It may depend on who you’re watching it with. When I saw it, the gender divide in the room was palpable; the lead female’s cutesy nature elicited exasperated sighs and miserable cringing from several men in the audience, who may have expected it to be more along the lines of Blue Valentine. And to be fair, at several points I felt similar – but my instinctive female solidarity, plus memories of chats with girlfriends, kept me circumspect. This kind of girl definitely exists, like her or not – it wouldn’t be fair to be dismissive of the film based on its blonde tone. Ultimately, I think this film has merit, presenting an enjoyable, decidedly feminine perspective of a woman’s insecurities and fantasies. But give it a watch and decide for yourself – with someone of the opposite sex, if you’re feeling bold.

Take This Waltz is in cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur

Nostalgia for the Light | review

While Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light juxtaposes fairly niche interests – astronomy and the Pinochet era – the poetic way he draws parallels between scientific and sociopolitical investigations of the past transcends the particulars. Personal traumas resonate on an epic scale in Guzman’s haunting depiction of the scars of modern Chile.

Forty years ago, Chile’s democracy was struggling with a crippled economy and a politically polarised population. Four decades of strong leftist forces were being challenged, especially because of the Cold War. Under these conditions, hard right General Pinochet staged a successful, military coup against the leftist president Salvador Allende. His regime aggressively and brutally silenced any opposition, imprisoning, torturing, ‘disappearing’ and exiling thousands – including Patricio Guzmán.

When Guzmán was 32, he started his second documentary called The Battle of Chile, filming up until the day of the coup that put Pinochet in power. On that day, Guzmán was imprisoned for two weeks. Then, threatened with execution, he fled to Europe with his film stock. Since that time, he has made many documentaries about Chilean concerns, and it is fitting that – now in his 70s – he reflects upon Chile’s history with a pained nostalgia.

The film is dominated by gorgeous, sweeping shots of the Atacama desert and the glittering sky above it. Guzmán shows us how both environments grant us access to evidence of the past, whether through the changing composition of star systems or through preserved artefacts shallowly buried in shifting sands. He also captures how time is pre-modern in these environments, and the present feels like a fallacy. Even the sunlight we see and feel takes eight minutes to travel to us. He makes it clear that the silence of the desert and of space doesn’t necessarily indicate calm – both are pregnant with secrets and history that lead to endless questions.

To try and answer these questions, Guzmán interweaves varied testimonials from Chileans with these images of nature, effectively layered to ruminate upon how we try to find inner peace by remembering and trying to understand our past. He is fascinated by Chile’s paradoxical predisposition to examine the ancient past through the sky and the desert, while seeming to have a collective amnesia about the recent past. His most heartbreaking interviews are with women who have been tirelessly searching the Atacama desert for the remains of their loved ones for nearly three decades. Their struggles embody the film’s title – they, representative of many Chileans, long for a time when they did not feel like they live restlessly in the dark, isolated in their search for answers.

But ultimately, by focusing on this intersection of history and science, Guzmán’s unique documentary tries to reassure us by emphasising the invisible interconnectedness of everything. It serves as a reminder that we’re part of a massive cycle, made of stardust, and generation after generation will continue to pursue an understanding of it all.

Nostalgia for the Light is in cinemas now. Follow contributor Cathy Landicho on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.

A Simple Life (Tao Jie) | review

Think of Hong Kong cinema and your mind might automatically wander to martial arts films or crime thrillers. But, as you can infer from this film’s title, A Simple Life is not one of them. It has had commercial success and critical acclaim that was unexpected by all involved in the film, many of whom are veterans of the Hong Kong film industry. It’s the fifth highest-grossing film in Hong Kong this year so far (The Avengers and Men In Black 3 hold the top spots). Considering that the Hong Kong film industry has been struggling mightily against Hollywood blockbusters since the mid-1990s, the fact that this film has been a surprise hit is heartening for the regional business. A Simple Life is a love letter to a decidedly unglamorous and humble Hong Kong.

Ann Hui’s gentle film is led by Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), an ageing domestic servant (‘amah’ in Chinese) who tends to the needs of bachelor Roger Leung (Andy Lau), the only member of his family left in Hong Kong. Ah Tao was with the Leung family since she was orphaned by WWII and served four generations of the family, so the Leungs are essentially her family. The film focuses on Ah Tao’s relationship to Roger and how it evolves during her last years, rendering a tender portrait of the reality of becoming elderly.

There’s authenticity embedded in the film that helps it resonate – it’s based on real characters and Deanie Ip is actually Andy Tau’s godmother. It also doesn’t hurt that 23 years ago, Ip and Lau co-starred as mother and son in a film called The Truth. There’s a natural ease and familiarity to their understated onscreen interactions that is rare to see.

A Simple Life opens with Ah Tao limping up stairs with heavy groceries and then serving Roger a meal without any thanks or recognition offered. For the majority of us who didn’t grow up with in-house servants, it’s a bit off-putting. Roger hardly looks like a grown-up; he moves and dresses like a university student, despite being a big shot in the film industry. In contrast, Ah Tao acts with a strong sense of purpose and a professional dignity about her responsibilities; she never asks for anything and never complains. Deanie Ip is only 64, but her natural physical mannerisms thoroughly convince you that her body is starting to fail.

Ah Tao has a stroke, and thus retires and asks to be put in a nursing home so she isn’t a burden on Roger. Their familiar routines with each other are put in reverse; Roger goes from being cared for to having to take care of both himself and Ah Tao. Through Ah Tao, we get the nursing home experience without the smells, as she transitions from independent living to what is essentially a waiting game. The nursing home is populated with well-nuanced characters who make it clear that Ah Tao is one of the fortunate ones. It’s lucky for us in the audience, as hers is a best-case scenario of a stage of life most would rather not think about.

It may all sound depressing, but watching it doesn’t feel that way. Each character is cheerful and entertaining, complete with little idiosyncrasies, and the cinematography is crisp and naturalistic. Everything in the film serves character development in a humanist, understated manner, quite like Ah Tao herself. Deanie Ip’s performance (which deservedly won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Venice, the first for a Hong Kong woman) commands respect and holds your sympathies. The last third does drag slightly, mainly because you know what’s coming; but this reflects reality, since the waiting is quietly agonising. The film gently reminds us of our mortality and our responsibilities to our family, in a non-preachy way. If you feel like a break from grandiose blockbuster films this summer, give this one a try.

A Simple Life opens in selected UK cinemas nationwide on 3 August. Contributor Cathy Landicho can followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.

Music video week | Contributor Top 3 | Cathy Landicho

As part of Music Video Week here on PPH, we’ve asked our contributors to nominate their Top 3 music vids of all time along with a few words to explain their choices. Here are Cathy Landicho‘s choices. She can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.

3. ‘Sabotage’ – The Beastie Boys (Spike Jonze, 1994)

MCA’s pulsing, fuzzy bass line, insistent like a police siren, propels this song’s intensity; combine that with Ad-Rock’s throaty, aggressive vocal delivery, and you get a head-banging tune that could easily soundtrack a retro cop show. Spike Jonze’s stylish, funny, frenetic and affectionate video featuring the Beasties in multiple roles totally complements each beat – from the spinning shots accompanying the record scratches, to the hits timed to drumbeats, to the long fall that accompanies Ad-Rock’s wail of “Whhhhyyyy”. The video helps you mentally strut to the song, and motivates you to try sliding across the hood of the car. (Don’t lie – I know you tried it too.)

In memoriam: MCA (who dressed in lederhosen as his alter ego Nathaniel Hornblower and stormed the stage of the MTV Music Video awards to protest Jonze losing the Best Director award to R.E.M.’s ‘Everybody Hurts’ – not a proud moment, but a memorable one)

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2. ‘Virtual Insanity’ – Jamiroquai (Jonathan Glazer, 1996)

An obvious choice; a totally mesmerizing and unforgettable video. Even though this was on heavy rotation for a good chunk of 1996, I’d never flip the channel because you’d watch it again and again, trying to figure out how the hell it was filmed. Is the floor moving? Or the set? But the couch is moving too… and it looks like there’s so few cuts! And why is Jay Kay wearing that silly hat? It turns out that director Jonathan Glazer came up with the concept and executed it on a manageable budget, securing the camera to a set on wheels, moved by ten dudes’ choreographed pushes. In four shots! But besides all that, the point is that it’s nigh-on impossible to take your eyes off Jay Kay and his dancing. He made it look so damn easy. If you’ve watched the video as much I have, when you dance along to this song, somewhere in the back of your mind you’re imagining the floor moving with you.

Also, check out this interview with Jonathan Glazer explaining the video.

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1. ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ – Lauryn Hill (Big TV! 1998)

Jersey girl Lauryn Hill’s massive solo album spawned two great music videos that pay homage to NYC: ‘Everything is Everything’ and ‘Doo Wop’. The former’s concept of Manhattan as a rotating record on a turntable is nifty, but the latter’s thoughtful split screen vision contrasting 1967’s Washington Heights with 1998’s just suits the song perfectly. The London duo Big TV! (Monty Whitbloom and Andy Delaney) manages to join the split screens seamlessly through smart compositional choices, and the symmetry maintained throughout creates an impressive illusion. It’s great fun watching 1967 Lauryn Hill duet with 1998 Lauryn Hill, with competing backup singers (though the Pips-like 1967 ones win, hands down). The old-school-meets-new-school style of the song is served well by the numerous poignant juxtaposed images in the video, showcasing the changing times of black New Yorkers of both genders. But for all its nuanced content and technical achievements, I love this video because it makes me want to hop into the screen to join the block party and get my groove on.

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Want to join the conversation? Find us on Twitter @PPlasticHelmet and use the hashtag #MusicVideoWeek.

The Bad and the Beautiful

Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 film The Bad and the Beautiful, now showing on extended run at London’s BFI Southbank, paints a thoroughly entertaining portrait of classic Hollywood. Through a series of deft flashbacks, it chronicles of the rise and fall of an arrogant producer, Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), from the perspectives of those he stepped on to achieve his ambitions. The film centres around a last-ditch effort from Shields to convince three of his old colleagues-turned-enemies to work on his comeback project: director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). But what did he do to each of them to make them so angry with him? That dramatic tension hooks you in and compels you to judge for yourself whether Shields deserves help with his comeback film or not.

The story that unfolds offers a compelling, humane look at the personal lives of a range of Hollywood players during an era that preceded the invasive media scrutiny that dominates the film industry today. Kirk Douglas is brilliant as the near-mythical protagonist; this egotistical producer is not one we’re meant to feel sympathy for, but Douglas’ earnest performance reminds us that with ambition comes risk and vulnerability. It’s Shields’ ardor and addiction to filmmaking that links the three cleverly rendered flashbacks. Of the trio Shields aims to convince, Lana Turner – providing a pleasant reminder that she was more than just a pretty face – is the most captivating as the disarming Georgia. But even the minor characters are surprisingly delightful, particularly Bartlow’s wife, a scene-stealing Southern belle played by Gloria Grahame (a turn for which she won a deserved Academy Award).

The nuanced characterizations of the quirky cast are thoughtful and thorough, from their distinctive deliveries of voiceovers to their attachments to totemic props (such as Georgia’s necklace) which are often cleverly utilized for clear and logical transitions between scenes. This, combined with brisk edits, helps the film move with good momentum, accompanied by tasteful, romantic scoring. And the sumptuously detailed sets, dramatically lit, complete the dream-like atmosphere that befits classic Hollywood. The Bad and the Beautiful won five Academy Awards by practicing what it preaches; throughout the film, the protagonist aims for quality over quantity, for awards over commercial success.

That said, The Bad and the Beautiful isn’t quite a love letter to Hollywood. Rather, it presents a place where dreams begin and then are painfully reshaped. It has a refreshingly uncynical view of the industry, unafraid to be a touch moralistic in espousing self-reliance, while managing to retain a wry sense of humour about its commentary, never allowing itself to get too serious or self-congratulatory. It’s such a pleasure to see a film that respects its audience, is thoughtfully constructed, and isn’t a downer – a rare combination in Hollywood nowadays.

Crazy Stupid Love

When it comes to romantic comedies, experience has taught us not to expect much substance. Forget about realism too. We automatically brace ourselves for two hours of saccharine, implausibly manufactured scenarios slanted towards pleasing a primarily female demographic. But Crazy Stupid Love takes those expectations on board, presenting a refreshing tragicomic romp designed to appeal to men and women alike. The film is thoroughly amusing and lighthearted, keeping its content familiar and accessible while packing in thoughtful details to keep the audience engaged on a deeper level.

At first glance, Crazy Stupid Love looks pretty unremarkable. The character types and plotline are familiar and predictable. A middle-aged man (Steve Carell) finds out his wife (Julianne Moore) is having an affair, so he leaves her to reassess his life and rediscover his manhood with the help of a devastatingly suave uber-bachelor (Ryan Gosling). But their performances are surprisingly charismatic and appealing, aided by fresh comedic writing. The montage of Carell’s transformation from a Gap-wearing dad to an Armani-wearing player while being bullied by Gosling is laugh-out-loud funny. And Carell’s rant on being ‘cuckolded’ comes to mind as a cleverer comic scene of despair than I’ve seen in other rom-coms.

To add dramatic irony and situational humour, there are love triangles sustained throughout the film – sure, it’s forced narrative complexity, but it’s nowhere near as contrived as what happens in Richard Curtis’ hyper-arbitrary Love Actually. Furthermore, the supporting cast involved in those love triangles add pleasant colouring to the film. In particular, the couple’s 13-year-old son (strongly acted by Jonah Bobo) is refreshing as a lovelorn tween approaching manhood himself. His character’s uncynical convictions juxtaposed with his dad’s wearied compromises are key to revealing the ‘heart’ of the film.

To its credit, Crazy Stupid Love’s strong thematic focus is served well by its technical side – the tight editing of its intercut storylines keeps the film moving at a good pace, and the thoughtful composition delivers the necessary exposition in interesting ways. There’s one long tracking shot that functions as a magical time-lapse montage of Carell’s character schmoozing with a slew of attractive women; it’s a memorable moment in which the film shows off its technical merits while still serving the story. The editing and composition are complemented by a decent soundtrack featuring the likes of Thievery Corporation and Talking Heads, largely avoiding cliched pop songs.

Crazy Stupid Love isn’t without its faults, especially as it nears its conclusion. The situations are almost cartoony, not helped by a horrifically over-the-top cameo by Marisa Tomei. But the script includes meta-commentary that addresses the unrealistic parts, making them easier for the audience to swallow. When it rains during the dramatic low point for the protagonist, he says: “What a cliche.” Indeed, aren’t most rom-coms chock full of cliches?

Thinking about other films in this genre, it seems most fall into three categories: relatively high-concept (see 13 Going on 30), topically niche (see My Big Fat Greek Wedding) or star-packed pastiche (see Love Actually). The fact that Crazy Stupid Love doesn’t follow these formulas is something to appreciate. The film clearly has a sense of humour about itself, which helps us also have a sense of humour about it as well. All in all, a good pick for a Valentine’s night in.

Crazy Stupid Love is now available on DVD. Contributor Cathy Landicho can followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.

Another view: Shame and gender

There’s no doubt that Shame is a bold, captivating portrait of a sex addict’s life in New York. The visual style is stunning, Michael Fassbender’s performance – bizarrely unrecognized by the Academy – is mesmerising, and the film really captures the essence of New York onscreen. But its portrayal of women is less than flattering, and this is worth noting. Yes, the focus is on the character of Brandon and his addiction, so we are meant to sympathise with him and see women through his eyes. Fair enough. And Brandon’s no misogynist – he’s certainly the good guy when contrasted with his lecherous married boss. Still, does a film about a man’s sex addiction have to keep female perspectives so muted to tell its story? I think in 2012 we could do a bit better.

You’ve got to admit it’s an awkward one for heterosexual women watching the film, for whom Brandon is a real-life nightmare. Brandon seems like such a catch; an attractive and considerate man, however, he finds open communication difficult, is intensely emotionally unavailable and has a voracious sexual appetite (albeit to a pathological degree). Any ladies out there, hands up if you’ve been with such a man? The memories aren’t pleasant, I’m sure. Women who’ve had such experiences learn to go into defensive mode around men like Brandon, but the film skilfully forces its audience to put their guards down. Nevertheless, the result happens to be those women feeling male domination all over again.

Of course the film needs to include women who fulfil Brandon’s desires – but there are two key female characters who provide important counterpoints to this, women in his world whose voices he actually hears: his colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie) and more crucially, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Yet the contrast between these two and all the other women is simply not strong enough to make a difference; not enough to un-mute women in his story.

It’s unfortunate that our introduction to Marianne is sexualised early on when Brandon fantasises about her naked while checking her out at the office; from that point on, we already know that their fledgling relationship is likely to be doomed. During their one and only date Marianne establishes herself as a smart, sensitive girl who doesn’t automatically swoon in Brandon’s presence. However in the aborted sex scene which follows, the camera is statically dispassionate, automatically prioritizing Fassbender (because we know him better) and denying us access to Marianne’s feelings while she struggles to get close to him. Sure, Brandon’s breakdown feels remote but Marianne’s reaction manages to be even more obscured. At this crucial moment, she seems more like a plot device exposing Brandon’s frailties rather than a living, breathing woman.

Sissy’s voice could have added greater balance to an uneven film, yet she is also reduced to functioning as a narrative mechanism rather than a full character. As with Marianne, the film introduces her to us in a way that undercuts her; we first hear Sissy on Brandon’s answerphone, and it’s left ambiguous whether she’s another of his female conquests or someone more substantial. It’s a provocative choice but it also throws her character under the bus – she’s initially presented as an unhinged sexual threat to Brandon so explicitly that it’s difficult to see her side of the story without prejudice.

When Brandon bursts into the bathroom because he thinks Sissy’s an intruder, she doesn’t cover herself up. If Sissy had been a bit less brazen, covering herself up partially yet still enough to make Brandon uncomfortable, we might care about her a bit more. I mean, what sister stands unabashedly stark naked in front of her brother? Is Shame an issue film about a sex addict or about incest? Enigmatic obfuscation is one thing; manipulative red herrings are another entirely.

Also, she’s wearing a hospital bracelet, but this is never addressed – in fact, most audience members probably missed it, seeing as there was no close-up or dialogue about it. Again, here’s a missed opportunity to give Sissy more of a voice, instead of marginalizing her as just a projection of Brandon’s. Did she have an operation? Attempt suicide? So did Brandon never visit her at the hospital meaning she had to come to him?

We next hear her on the phone, desperately professing her love to someone leaving her, though by this (still early) point of the film the damage to her character’s been done. That scene’s not quite enough for us to accept that she’s the inverse of Brandon and have equal sympathy for her. Even her big moment – a bar blues rendition of ‘New York, New York’ – is ultimately upstaged by Brandon and his maudlin release of a single tear. Sissy, like her brother, is love-starved but emotional and expressive rather than cold and silent; however, the way she’s presented in the film, we are pushed to favour Brandon’s control and detachment over her messiness and vulnerability.

In the end, despite Carey Mulligan’s committed performance, Sissy, like Marianne, is more catalyst than character. She mainly serves to expose and challenge Brandon while acting as a foil – she’s addicted to attention/affection rather than carnal pleasure. Thus her self-destruction isn’t in itself important, because it simply sparks Brandon’s self-destruction (if indeed we are to view Shame as a message film about sex addiction). It’s a bit of a pity, really. Remember Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd in another New York film about emotional and psychological dislocation? They could have been mere dressing on the window of Travis Bickle’s mind, yet Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader made it clear that these three-dimensional women existed outside their warped protagonist’s jaundiced perspective. In my humble opinion, Shame’s idolatry of Brandon keeps it just short of being a fully accessible and truly brilliant film.

Blood In The Mobile

The laptop or smartphone you’re using to read this article now almost certainly has cassiterite in it: cassiterite is a mineral which is refined into tin and used in loads of electronics. The Democratic Republic of Congo has a wealth of cassiterite within its borders, but these remote mines are overseen by armed groups who exploit the locals working and living near the mines. For over a decade, children have worked in unsafe mines, and locals have been taxed exorbitant amounts and controlled through unchecked violence. The human rights abuses abound, and countless Congolese are being killed and raped with little hope for change.

Danish director Frank Poulsen’s documentary Blood In The Mobile aims to increase awareness of this issue of conflict minerals. His approach is that of a Michael Moore-esque Average Joe who suspects his phone may contain said minerals. So, as a conscientious consumer and a filmmaker – not an activist – he documents his quest to hold his phone company’s feet to the fire.

Sadly, Poulsen’s insistence on framing the film as a personal vendetta, filming every moment including his awkward arguments with various official representatives, undermines his project’s credibility. The film opens with him at a mobile phone expo demanding corporate responsibility statements from reps of his phone company, Nokia. His message is clearly: Look at all these unfeeling, posh corporate people profiting from people dying in Africa! His reaction to their waffling responses is to plunge into Congo to find the answers for himself. We should be rooting for him, but his quest seems so naive that we instead feel more dread about how he’ll confront the imminent dangers a white man with a camera will surely face than hope that he’ll find what he’s looking for.

On the plus side, Poulsen does capture rare footage by persisting in his perilous visit to a cassiterite mine in Bisie, and also obtains pertinent soundbites from apt people including reps from Nokia and concerned NGOs, a mineral expert and a US Congressman submitting a bill improving regulations on the mineral trade. However, his audacity is more worrisome than admirable, and his callow conversations expose a conspicuous lack of depth and context in the film that is both disappointing and frustrating to watch.

What Poulsen never really manages to communicate is that improving the circumstances of the Congolese exploited by mines is a treacherously complicated process. The armed groups controlling the mines now are actually part of the Congolese army, requiring a political and possibly military approach on an international scale. Poulsen neglects to explore this issue in the film at all, and instead focuses on corporate responsibility and capitalist greed. But the electronics industry is working on implementing protocol to track all elements of their supply chain, and enforcing those audits is no small task. While these actions may be slow-going and late-in-the-day, corporations cannot stop the Congolese Army by themselves. Poulsen simply does not appear to accept this in his documentary, and is instead hell-bent on blaming Nokia – just one of many in the massive electronics sector, and actually known for trying to lead the industry in social responsibility – for the atrocities in the Congo.

Poulsen’s film clearly intends to demonize Nokia as a heartless multinational, rather than educate the public about conflict minerals. The film’s official website tries to mitigate this, as it has plenty more cold, hard facts about the issue than are actually included in the finished film. Even so, all this is a bit outdated in light of the impact of the recent Dodd-Frank law which aims to make the conflict mineral trade less profitable, though has not yet reduced the region’s violence. Consequently, Blood In The Mobile is more effective as a portrait of an intrepid – if egocentric and brazen – filmmaker’s struggles than an investigative documentary about a tragic situation. A missed opportunity.

Blood In The Mobile is available now on DVD and iTunes via Dogwoof.

The First Movie

Mark Cousins, the man behind the exceptional recent The Story of Film series, channels his passion for film into this charming, unusual documentary that boldly gives voice to the perspectives of Kurdish children in Goptapa, Iraq.

In 1988, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime gassed this ethnic minority village during the genocidal campaign known as the Anfal, killing 14% of its population. Because Cousins grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, he strongly relates to how a child experiences the traumas of war. When he was young, he says he was ‘tenderised’ by the surrounding strife, but was able to take refuge in his homeland’s beauty and in the imagined worlds of films. The children of Goptapa are also haunted by conflict yet surrounded by a beautiful land – but they have no access to films or the escape they provide. Cousins believes that his personal experience shows how the daily threats of war could be kept at bay by nourishing his imagination; this spurs his quest is to see if film can work the same magic for Goptapa’s children as it did for him.

Cousins’ experiment of granting these children access to film as both consumers and producers envelops the audience in a dreamworld. He introduces Goptapa to imagination-sparking films, then distributes Flip cameras to the children and screens their footage as a parting gift. A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the screenings, reminding us how movies can be mystical and bewitching. The kids’ films are unreal, rare insights into their values and experiences. Their footage is appreciably more raw, more honest than what we’d see from Western journalists. The older kids capture heart-breaking interviews of the adults of Goptapa, in which the interviewees speak quickly about their personal tragedies, as if it would hurt less that way. The younger kids focus more on fun, filming their friends and spinning stories, reminding us that they’re not so different from other kids.

However, even in the young ones’ films, we see a quiet despair. In young Mohammed’s film, a boy plays with mud because he has nothing else to play with; he ‘gives his wishes to the mud’. When asked who he loves, Mohammed says ‘those who protect this village’ – not his family or friends. Through the medium of film, we empathise with this wounded community, crippled by fear of persecution. By the end, Cousins modifies his assertion that film can make war feel less real – these children see film not as an escape but as a tool to help them fight toward better lives.

Cousins’ unique vision is a refreshingly thoughtful take on life in a war-scarred village; he skillfully juxtaposes Goptapa’s beautiful panoramas with its tragic history, deliberately steering well clear of the look and tone of an NGO advert. His esoteric visual style combines pastoral views with whimsical shots of wind, balloons and bubbles so that even in an ancient land fraught with conflict, we think of what it’s like to be a child and innocently imagine a world where anything’s possible. As such, The First Movie is a striking, original documentary, best watched when you crave an escape.

The First Movie is available on DVD now, released by Dogwoof.

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