Friday, 25 February 2011

The earliest films ever shot?

The earliest films ever shot?

The Lumière brothers, Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas (19 October 1862, Besançon, France – 10 April 1954, Lyon) and Louis Jean (5 October 1864, Besançon, France – 6 June 1948, Bandol), were among the earliest filmmakers in history. (Appropriately, "lumière" translates as "light" in English.)

The Lumière brothers were born in Besançon, France, in 1862 and 1864, and moved to Lyon in 1870, where both attended La Martiniere, the largest technical school in Lyon.Their father, Claude-Antoine Lumière (1840–1911), ran a photographic firm and both brothers worked for him: Louis as a physicist and Auguste as a manager. Louis had made some improvements to the still-photograph process, the most notable being the dry-plate process, which was a major step towards moving images.

It was not until their father retired in 1892 that the brothers began to create moving pictures. They patented a number of significant processes leading up to their film camera - most notably film perforations (originally implemented by Emile Reynaud) as a means of advancing the film through the camera and projector. The cinématographe itself was patented on 13 February 1895 and the first footage ever to be recorded using it was recorded on March 19, 1895. This first film shows workers leaving the Lumière factory.

The Lumières held their first private screening of projected motion pictures in 1895. Their first public screening of films at which admission was charged was held on December 28, 1895, at Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. This history-making presentation featured ten short films, including their first film, Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). Each film is 17 meters long, which, when hand cranked through a projector, runs approximately 50 seconds.

From Wikipedia

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Hailee Steinfeld and True Grit


I was asked in Twitter if I thought True Grit is closer to the 1969 Hathaway’s (John Wayne) movie or the novel. My answer was that this current version is very much a Coens’ film. 

Although I do confess that I have not read Charles Portis’ book, something I am not that concerned about, as I think that when a novel is made into a film, it becomes a work of art on its own right rather than just a mechanical translation of the written word into images. That transfer is a creative process in itself.

While the 1969 movie has very much been defined as the John Wayne’s version, this one is as much as a Hailee Steinfeld’s as is a Jeff Bridges’ film. I was extremely impressed by her performance, strong yet nuanced, magnificently conveying the courage, determination and childishness of Mattie Ross, as interpreted by the Coen brothers (they also wrote the screenplay). Hailee has joined a group of young female actors who play strong characters, such as Natalie Portman in Luc Besson’s Léon (1994) – an interpretation which was impressive - and, certainly, Chloë Grace Moretz in Kick Ass and Let Me In. The poor little girl roles are not for any of this trio. I really did enjoy that initial scene of True Grit where Mattie (Hailee) bargains with the trader and the undertaker, I enjoyed it with a kind of strong inward looking smile.

That dual interpretation of Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon’s La Boeuf has all the Coens’ hallmark, although I did think that Jeff Bridges overcooked his portrayal of the drunken marshall. However, the touches of humour sprinkled onto the character makes this True Grit a very different film from the 1969 version. Certainly, this Rooster Cogburn is not that of John Wayne, and his relationship with the Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, is quixotic, to say the least. As in Sancho Panza, behind that apparent old drunkard and crooked façade, with a rather suspect past, lies a sharp and loyal man.

On this sense, there is here a nod towards the mythology of the classical American western, the genre that epitomized the myth building necessary for the development of the nation, for the American dream. This True Grit, as the well loved westerns of the past, provides a clear anchor point for an America where that pioneering spirit is in trouble, where too many dreams lies in tatters amongst the house repossessions, the unemployed, the collapsed banks and those whole quarters of cities falling into open dereliction.

Roger Deakins deserves a special mention, as his cinematography gives this film a very different look of those old westerns, gone are the cinemascope optimistic brilliant colours, replaced by a subdued visual interpretation of the great open landscapes more akin to an inward vision of contemporary America.

For those of you who have not see it either this version or the old one, or read the book, True Grit, set in the 1870s, follows the mission of Mattie Ross, a 14 year old girl (Hailee Steinfeld), to avenge the death of her father at the hands of Tom Chaney (a frightening Josh Brolin) in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She contracts Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt for her father’s murderer into Indian territory, while a Texas Ranger, La Boeuf (Matt Damon) is also in the chase of this man for a different murder. The constant bickering between this trio is vital for the development of the story.

Cliff hangers, humour, whisky, strong determination, a visually stunning interpretation of the American open landscape, and the murky past of the characters make this film rolling in this era of uncertainty.

My kudos to newcomer Hailee Steinfeld for having pulled the carpet from under Jeff Bridges’ feet.

It may win the Oscar, although I am more inclined to give it to The King’s Speech. On the other hand, I am not a judge, so...

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld
Running time: 110 Mins

For trailer please click here.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Notes on Never Let Me Go

What is the purpose of our lives? What for are we on the surface of this planet? Do we know it? Have not we been grappling with it from the beginning of the human race?

Yet, they knew it...

Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, is both a love story and dystopia, a reflection on mortality and memory, and a comment on how our society works by setting up an extreme scenario. These notes are both about the film and the book.

There are two interlinked narratives running through it, a love story, and the fate of Hailsham’s students. Kathy H (Carey Mulligan) narrates her story, which is also that of his fellow students Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield). The beginning and the end of the film blend together, providing a neat enclosure to the whole of the narrative. In this sense, the structure of the film follows that of the book. However, there are several divergences between the two as the story progresses, which mostly work, with a couple of exceptions here and there.

We are thrown from the very first scene of Never Let Me Go into a typical scene of a boarding educational establishment anywhere in England, a school assembly. Little children are spoken to by the head mistress, Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), about the special perils of smoking for them, as they are “special”. The children respond in unison. The camera focuses on young Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small), then moves to a child Tommy (Charlie Rowe) and Ruth (Ella Purnell). The protagonists and the school, Hailsham, have been effectively introduced to us.

From there we follow them onto the play ground and other typical boarding school activities. Yet we soon see that they are treated as “special” children. There seem to be a rather intrusive medical presence within the school, a normal bruise on Kathy’s face, which anywhere else would have been dismissed as children play, is looked suspiciously by the nurse, who feels compelled to have the doctor to examine it. Romanek introduces us much earlier than it was in the book to the core of Never Let Me Go: these children are “indeed” special, they have been raised as part of a human cloning programme with the only purpose to provide (“donate” is the euphemism used) their vital organs for the rest of society to be cured of all major illnesses – no more deaths produced by cancer or heart strokes, people mostly live well past a hundred year old. To be fair to Romanek, he had to introduce us to the purpose of the school in the opening credits to give a clear structure to the film. Literature and cinema are different art forms, what works in one does not necessarily work on the other.

As they are told by one of the teachers, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), normal people can dream, perhaps to go to America, or to be actors, or just simply work in a supermarket, or having children, raising a family. These options are not open to Hailsham students. They will become adults, just briefly, before they start to donate their organs so that the rest of society can go on living for longer, free of diseases. They can have sex, but are not able to have children. America, actors, supermarkets, office? All out of bonds for them.

If we produce battery raised chicken, or semi-industrial production of animals for us to consume their meat, is much different to raise humans for us to consume their organs? If that were to be the case, would those humans, those children, be considered equal to us? This is what lies behind that scene where Madame is ganged upon by the children. On that initial scene, Richard failed to project that sense of revulsion, not fear, as if the children were not human, as if the children were spiders, as Ishiguro wrote on the novel. However, on that final encounter between Madame and the grown up Kathy and Tommy, that feeling was strongly conveyed, particularly when Madame says to Kathy “You, poor creatures”. The mythical “Madame’s Gallery” is also finally elucidated here. Tommy is utterly distraught when he finds out, while Kathy takes it all in with calm resignation, as if she always knew somewhere in the back of her mind.

What is incidental for many of us, memories, becomes vital for Kathy. When the future has been set out for you in minute detail, when all your movements are being monitored from birth to death – we see them having to check in with their bracelets when they get back to the Cottages after an excursion, then their memories is the only thing that can be owned.

I also felt that, because of the need by Alex Garland to compress the book in a format which could be cinematically doable, some of the early scenes seem somewhat forced, as if Romanek had to go through the paces. I am particularly thinking of the scene where Kathy’s group of children gangs on Madame (Natalie Richard) when she was doing of her regular visits to the school to collect their artwork for “The Gallery”, as they suspected that she was afraid of the them. What they found was much worse than that, a reaction that told them what they were much clearer than any word could be. Ishiguro built a crescendo to reach to that particular moment in the novel, while Romanek just threw it, therefore loosing the potency and the meaning of it, a key moment which defines much of the rest of the story. However, on the second encounter between a grown up Kathy and Tommy, the meaning of Madame’s attitude becomes clear, and the reason for Hailsham to exist becomes is also explained to them. It is interesting to note here that the creation of this school created a sense of class within these children, these people, as most of them were raised in establishments akin to battery farms.

No explanation is given either in the film or the book of how this cloning programme came into existence, apart from a mention of a medical breakthrough in 1952. Presumably, what started as an experimental programme became so ingrained into social expectations that no other consideration would be look at. We all want to live free of disease until a ripe old age. We do not want to know how we do it, what is the prize to be paid by others. However, Never Let Me Go, as in much of the best of works with a science fiction theme, is not about science, but about us, humans. The scientific dimension is used as an artistic device to set up a situation which would be not credible otherwise.

Both Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield were excellent as Ruth and Tommy, while Charlotte Rampling delivered a very professional Miss Emily. I Have never been too convinced about Keira Knightley, and nothing in this film dispels that notion. The cinematography was excellent, particularly on those intimate shots in the Cottages, with beautiful tangential lighting.

Some commentators have described Never Let Me Go as depressing. However, I did not find that this was the case, mostly because of the intense and deep pleasure I had on watching the waves of humanity rippling through Carey Mulligan’s face. If I had a celebrity crush, I think it would be on Carey. That deep voice coming out of what is still a child like face...

Director: Mark Romanek
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Cast: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling
Cinematography: Adam Kimmel
Music: Rachel Portman

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Black Swan reviewed

Well, Black Swan, yes... Impressive, but if you are expecting to see a film about ballet, then this is not for you. Ballet dancers have decried this film as not portraying the life of dancers as they really are, of having every cliché possible about dance in it. Natalie Portmann has been said to be a passable dancer, but incapable of dancing like a professional (well, she is not a professional ballet dancer!), and of even having the wrong bottom shape. I do agree with that last statement, she does not have a dancer’s body.

None of this does matter very much as Black Swan is not a documentary about ballet.

Obsession is the subject here, the obsession to reach perfection. Umberto Eco said that, referring to writers, the author should die after the work has been produced, as they will get in the way of its reading. In this sense, what is proposed here is the opposite of the celebrity culture, where the work itself is superfluous.

This is also a story about the tortuous relationship between two strong creative characters, those of Nina and the company’s artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel); although Leroy is in a position of power, and he uses it. He wants the ballet to be as he has seen it in his artistic vision, pushing his dancers in that direction. The effort, the tension, is, at moments, unbearable.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young ballerina who aspires to dance both the White and the Black Swan in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a very demanding task. Nina’s baggage is her temperamental and possesive mother, a failed dancer who claims she gave up her career when her daughter was born. Psychological blackmail is in action here. Nina must have the career she did not have. Yet, on the other hand, she is somewhat jealous of her daughter’s success, althoug she does not recognize it. She sees herself within her daughter’s body.

Nina, in her early twenties, is still treated as if she were a 12 year old child, as she screams to her mother in one key scene. Her bedroom is a testimony of the way she has been raised: all pink, teddy bears and dolls all over the place, a music box that her mother set it off to put her to sleep every night. Nina feels oppressed at home, with kindness at times, perhaps, but still oppressed.

During the long hours spent in the rehearsals, she tries hard, too hard, to meet Leroy’s expectations. Nina’s mind resents the tension produced by those two. Her body too, bloody rashes appear all over her body as a result of the stress she is under. Finally, she is given both the roles of the White and the Black Swan to dance, yet she has to fight to keep them, especially the darker one. Her mother’s possessive and controlling attitude has inhibited Nina, she is technically good, but she is not letting it go, emotionally. If she does not do it, her character will fail to enthral the demanding New York audience, her ultimate, and final, reward. The Black Swan is what it is: dark. Can she do it? Can she extract from herself the dark side of her personality? The prize is high, but the price to be paid to reach it is also high.

The competition is fierce, she has to be on her toes all the time. Every single member of the company would like to be on her shoes. A night out with another dancer, Lily, just before the opening night of the ballet, whom she suspects is trying to steal her Black Swan role, ends with her in a very confused state of mind, where reality and her paranoid fears mix. She cannot any longer distinguish between them. The following morning, escaping from her mother’s clutches, who attempts to imprison her as she is concerned about the state of her mind, Nina reaches the theatre where she magnificently dances the White and the Black Swan to the rapturous applause of the audience and that of Thomas Leroy... a performance that no one will forget.

Natalie Portman performs a dramatic feast, requiring extraordinary psychological depth and skills, in characterizing both faces of the swan, although I thought at some points her performance was somewhat overwrought. Strong acting, with a big A, it has been said. That A, does is stand for Acting, or for American? Vincent Cassel portrays the arrogant and obsessive character of Thomas Leroy, whilst Mila Kunis excels in her interpretation of the free spirited Lily.

The mostly hand held camera work and the cinematography strongly convey that sense of uneasiness, of imprisonment, of claustrophobic paranoia, of her inability to see the world beyond the walls of the theatre, of her apartment, of her mind. We hardly see any open space throughout the film and, when we do, it is in a contrived street or subway station setting, trains and cars all the time running, running, running...

If you want to see a film about ballet, probably the Black Swan is not for you. There is ballet, and Tchaikovsky’s score is cleverly used to highlight the key dramatic scenes in the film. Black Swan is an intensely gripping psychological thriller which will keep you captivated until the end... an exploration of a mind’s desire to capture perfection, self-destruction being the price paid.

To view the trailer, please click here.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Paradox Soldiers reviewed

This Russian offering adds a science-fiction twist to a war film, including some excellent battle re-enactments. Four young men, two Russians and two Ukrainians, enter into a time portal during a re-enactment of the Brody Encirclement, one of the bloodiest battles fought in the Eastern Front in 1944, were the Nazi Ukrainian Galitsin division was nearly annihilated. To their chagrin, they land right in the middle of the bloodshed of the real battle, torn between their desire to return to the present time, escape alive, and not change history, the end of which they already know.

However, I find very little to recommend in the Paradox Soldiers, apart from the battle re-enactments, which are spectacular, with careful attention to detail. The acting is stiff, the cinematography and camera work undistinguishable, some of the twists are actually quite risible, the plot line confused. The past-present dilemma is hardly touched. The class conflict within Ukrainian society is hardly touched, although hinted.

In short, if you are into war movies, and would like to bite your teeth into this episode of the war in what was then the Soviet Union, then Paradox Soldiers is for you. Otherwise, ignore it.

Director: Boris Rostov
Cast: Igor Petrenko, Vladimir Yaglich, Alexei Barabash
Distributor: Metrodome Group

DVD Release date: 21st February 2011
Running time: 102 Minutes
Price: £15.99 / Certificate: TBC

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Final Sacrifice reviewed

A review

“Que el cielo exista, aunque nuestro lugar sea el infierno.”
Jorge Luis Borges: Deutches Requiem

“Let heaven exist, although our place is in hell.”
My translation.

The above quotation, slipped into the dialogue by the end of The Final Sacrifice, is the only good characteristic of this rather anaemic film. Set in Northern Italy by the end of WW2, it follows the rather uneasy alliance between German and Italian troops, subjected to heavy aerial bombardment by the Allies, continuous harassment by partisans, and the prospect of facing the advancing Americans. There are conflicts simmering between the Germans and the Italians, aggravated by the refusal of the later to fight their compatriots, the partisans. The Germans face the prospect to protect the withdrawal of their panzer units from the Americans, while the Italian soldiers also withdrew.

The Final Sacrifice characterizes the Third Reich forces as being disciplined and trustworthy and the Italian soldiers are stereotyped as clowns. However, it does tackles the uneasiness of their alliance, and the contradictions facing the later between their duty as military men, and their reluctance to fight other Italians. It also points out to the flourishing black market prevalent at the time.

The significant reference to the Borges’ quotation slipped into the dialogue highlights the fundamental problem of this film, which is neither a parody or a justification of German heroism. Deutsches Requiem, one of Borges’ controversial short stories, can be read as a justification of the actions of the Nazis, yet this film does not have the courage to take this line, as Borges did, however repulsed we may be.

In short, The Final Sacrifice is a rather anaemic film, poorly acted, unexceptional cinematography, a confusing narrative and direction. However, a redeeming feature is the attention to detail taken, particularly in the uniforms and the military equipment used.

If you are interested in a rather overlooked aspect of WW2, this film is for you. Otherwise, stay clear. The disc contains a documentary about its making, which I found more interesting than the actual film.

Director: Ari Taub
Producer: Curtis Mattikow
Writers: Nick Day, Caio Ribeiro
Cast: Daniel Asher, Matthew Black, Justin Brett, Bob Brown, Hans-Dieter Brückner, Achim Buchner, Pierluigi Corallo, Nathan Crooker, Emanuele Fortunati, Britton Herring

DVD UK Release date: 24th January 2011
Running time: 102 Minutes
Certificate: 12