Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Book review

The volume on London that I edited as part of Intellect Books' World Film Locations series - other volumes include Los Angeles, Dublin and Madrid - was recently reviewed by French literary website Cercles. To read the review simply click on the link below and it may tempt you to order yourself a copy.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Around the World in 80 Movies - number 9

Country: Yugoslavia
Title: Do You Remember Dolly Bell?
Director: Emir Kusturica
Cast: Slavko Stimac, Slobodan Aligrudic, Ljiljana Blagojevic, Mira Banjac
Year: 1981
Running time: 107 minutes
Genre: Coming-of-age
Notable for:  Being Kusturica's feature length debut

Emir Kusturica burst onto the scene with his big screen debut, Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, which won four awards, including the Silver Lion, at the 1981 Venice Film Festival. A charming, bitter sweet tale set during the 'soft' Communism era of 60s Sarajevo, Dolly Bell? showcases many of the themes and idiosyncratic touches that have since become synonymous with Kusturica's films. Familial ties, generational divides, love and lust,death, man's relationship with the animal kingdom and nature, outsider/marginal communities, music, politics and crime all play a part in the story of Dino's (Slavko Stimac) transition from free-wheeling youth to adulthood and the responsibilities that come with it. A gentler, less frenetic film compared to Kusturica's later work, Dolly Bell? is populated by the unique blend of eccentric characters, replete with the surreal imagery and structured with the offbeat narrative rhythms and cadences of the two time Palme D'or winner's more Internationally celebrated films.

As with all truly memorable coming-of-age tales, the ups and downs, loves, losses and life lessons learnt may play out during a specific period, in this case drawn from the director's own memories of the period, but the themes and consequences are universal. Do You Remember Dolly Bell? also stands as a fictional document of life in the former Yugoslavia before the horrors of The Balkan Wars would forever change the physical and emotional landscapes of its inhabitants.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Watched - no 31: The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA, 2011)

Here's a confession: I was never particularly enamoured of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I've never seen an episode of Firefly, Angel or Dollhouse. I did, however, watch Serenity and thoroughly enjoyed it. So, I'm no Whedon aficionado. Drew Goddard? I'd no idea that he'd written Cloverfield or episodes of Lost and Alias (another series I've never seen), or that he'd had a hand in producing either of them. I am, though, a life long lover of the horror genre - from the Universal Horror movies, via the 'golden era' of the 70s and early 80s through to the proliferation of, largely forgettable, torture porn and mock-doc entries that make up much of the contemporary genre.

Every now and again a movie comes along that is deserving of the hype that precedes it, whether it be generated by the studios themselves, the fanboys (and girls) or the critics and journos that get an early viewing, and Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods, co-written by Whedon and the director, is one of those movies. It also needs to be reviewed in an even more spoiler conscious fashion than the average slice of cinema. Going into this movie with as little specific knowledge about it as possible should enhance the entertainment value immeasurably; and what entertainment it is too. Taking the well worn premise of five friends heading off to, you guessed it, a cabin in the woods for the weekend, Goddard and Whedon's movie proceeds to have about as much fun with the genre, its conventions, its history, its fans and the act of watching the movie itself as is possible.

The list of superlatives that I could use to describe how relentlessly entertaining The Cabin in the Woods is would be endless, and its not purely an exercise with limited appeal to horror movie buffs. Goddard and Whedon have pulled off the impressive trick of constructing an (often very funny) narrative that can either be engaged with on a meta level or just enjoyed purely for the visual thrill-ride. Reflexive, self-reflexive, referential, playful and smart - but never overtly self-conscious, irritatingly clever-clever or navel gazingly insular - The Cabin in the Woods is a movie that horror genre fans and non-horror genre fans, the cine-literate or the casual viewer  can take equal pleasure in. The term 'game changer', which I've seen bandied about in relation to Cabin, seems redundant to me, as it's not about changing the game, its about love of the game. Goddard and Whedon clearly know the horror genre (and I suspect many other genres) inside out, and they contribute their own thrilling, invigorating ideas to it. I can't imagine having as much fun in a cinema again for a long, long time.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

For Your Consideration..A Prize of Arms (Cliff Owen, UK, 1962)

Given the amount of current press coverage devoted to the ‘combat stress’-related criminality of today’s young ex-service personnel, it’s perhaps surprising that we haven’t seen more British movies basing their plots on this premise in recent years. It was a different story in the wake of World War Two.

From Brighton Rock (John Boulting 1947) through to, for the sake of argument, Robbery (Peter Yates 1967), the crime film in British post-war cinema took a mazy path around the dark back streets of a country coming to terms with itself in the wake of the hostilities. The Boulting Brothers’ fine adaptation of Graham Greene’s seaside-set novel was perhaps the first of the so-called ‘Spiv Cycle’ which loosely groups other well-known films such as The Third Man (Carol Reed 1949), Night and the City (Jules Dassin 1950) and The Blue Lamp (Basil Dearden 1950) with a smattering of lesser-known movies.

The Spiv Cycle was itself a strand of ‘Brit Noir’ although the bad guys in these films tend to owe a greater debt to the characters of the 1930s US gangster films rather than those found in true American film noir. The tone and nature of these films was derived from the context of the ongoing deprivations of the 1940s and typically they positioned their villains as exploitative black market racketeers or petty criminals, unpatriotically feeding off the conflict-battered and austerity-fatigued population, the insinuation being that these individuals hadn’t done their bit for the war effort.

Another early Spiv drama, Cavalcanti’s They Made Me A Fugitive (1947) was arguably the first British film to deal specifically with the concept of the disillusioned ex-serviceman turning to a life of crime. This marks quite a significant shift; miscreants like these are seen to have emerged honourably from wartime military service only to find themselves amid a national malaise of domestic breakdown and criminality. A string of films followed depicting disaffected veterans resorting to malfeasance in order to makes ends meet; some early examples to look out for include Dancing with Crime (John Paddy Carstairs 1947), Noose (Edmond T. GrĂ©ville 1948) and The Flamingo Affair (Horace Shepherd 1948).

By the mid 1950s it was not unusual to find films involving former bands of brothers reformed as well-organised criminal gangs. The Good Die Young (Lewis Gilbert 1954), The Ship that Died of Shame (Basil Dearden 1955) and The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden 1960) stand out from this period. At the tail end of the cycle, before the combined effect of the swinging sixties and the all-too-real celebrity status of the Kray twins and their ilk pushed this paradigm out of the cultural picture, a handful of downbeat, low-budget heist/caper films were put out that share many look-and-feel ingredients.

Names and faces associated with these neat, taut and spare little films would often include the likes of Stanley Baker and Tom Bell – seek out Hell Drivers (Cy Endfield 1957) and Payroll (Sidney Hayers 1961) respectively and The Criminal (Joseph Losey 1960) collectively for further evidence of their presence in the sub-genre – and be an onscreen black and white blur of duffle coats, tarpaulin-covered trucks, motorcyclists wearing helmets fitted with chinstraps, assorted secret lock-ups and hideouts, oxyacetylene torches and sticks of dynamite (safes for the breaking open of) and lovely big shiny black Wolseley police cars with bells instead of sirens.

One of the best, but least well-known films from this grouping would be A Prize of Arms (Cliff Owen 1962); set at the time of the Suez Crisis it boasts both the aforementioned Baker as bitter ex-captain Turpin and Bell as nervy mechanic Fenner alongside Helmut Schmid as a Polish explosives expert who saw active service with Turpin. Their plan to infiltrate an army barracks at night and steal a fortune from under the noses of a pay convoy en route to the Middle East comes to the inevitable sticky end but the tight-as-a-drum wristwatch timing of their attempt is nail-biting in the extreme, thanks in part to a young Nicolas Roeg and Kevin Kavanagh whose short story the film was based on. Fortunately Odeon Entertainment saw fit to give it a DVD release a few years ago which means its gritty, crepuscular, ‘kitchen sink’-meets-Cagney delights can now be easily enjoyed.

Jez Conolly @jezconolly

Friday, 13 April 2012

For Your Consideration...Go Fish (Rose Troche, USA, 1994)

This great little film came out in the same year as Clerks and shares its grainy black and white aesthetic and naturalist acting with that superb movie of Kevin Smith's.

Set in Chicago, it tells the story of Max, a pretty tomboy who falls for the shy and androgynous Eli. It's the exciting early stages of a relationship when everything is new. Both Max and Eli have the same friends and you see the relationship unfold while it is being discussed by a chorus made up of their acquaintances, ex-lovers and co-workers, who are lying on their backs, side by side in their funky student apartments, looking straight up at the camera and talking. It's a great way to see all their reactions at once. The setting lends a lighthearted formality to their conversation that raises it above the mundane and there is a general air of goodwill and fellow-feeling that is normally hard to reproduce on film without being saccharine.

There is something about great films that were consciously made in black and white during the colour era, like Psycho (1960), The Third Man (1949) and Night of The Hunter (1955). Although the reason for going b&w was often a budgetary one, these films are at once natural and stylised, low rent and magical. The black shades are more saturated in these earlier films. Go Fish is grainier, perhaps a bit more digital, but has a similar elegant simplicity. Its beneficent aura defuses any self-consciousness over the sexual politics of the movie. Max is cute and you fall for her and her girlfriend in the classic way that you fall for both parties in any good romantic work of art.

Go Fish won various awards and was nominated for the Grand Jury prize at Sundance. Guinevere Turner, who co-wrote it, plays Max. She went on to become a screenwriter (American Psycho) and the director, Rose Troche went on to become a director for TV shows such as Six Feet Under, Ugly Betty and Law and Order. I can't think of another movie that manages quite such a light touch with emotions, and follows the arc of a love story so deftly, balancing rancour and suspicion, joy and friendship in such judicious measures. Go see.

Will Mount - @wylvis

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

New feature - For Your Consideration...

Think Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain is better than the critics thought it was? Always believed that Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners was a misunderstood masterpiece? Then read on. The new monthly feature on The Fourth Wall, For Your Consideration..., will be a showcase for those movies that have been unfairly lambasted, overlooked or underrated in the opinion of each guest writer. Invited writers from the world of film criticism, both in print and online, will set out the case as to why their chosen movie needs to be re-evaluated, seen for the first time or just plain appreciated a lot more than it currently is. Any film from any genre from any era is open For Your Consideration...

Eye For Film review

My latest review for the good folk at Eye For Film is on the Icelandic coming-of-age drama Jitters. Directed by Baldvin Z, Jitters has been compared to Skins and centres around the struggles of a group of friends who face issues of sexuality, familial angst and the onset of adulthood. Follow the link below to see what I made of it.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Little White Lies review

My latest piece for the Little White Lies website is a review of Frederic Schoendoerffer's psychological thriller Switch. Starring Karine Vanasse and Eric Cantona, Switch is a pacey, twisty movie in the vein of Hitchcock and De Palma. Click on the link to the review and see if it cuts the mustard.