Wednesday, 4 July 2012


This blog is going on indefinite hiatus - the workload has increased significantly and I basically just don't have the time. I can easily fit the podcasting into the work schedule but writing reviews, think pieces and in general post has become more and more difficult. So, please do continue to listen to our podcast which is updated almost weekly (also available on iTunes), and do read Robert Beames' blog, Beames on Film, a great place with reviews of almost everything out there. If you're a customer at the cinema, do say hi next time you are in!

Friday, 30 March 2012

Vilnius - Final Post

Yesterday was the closing ceremony of the festival and we awarded our CICAE prize to BEST INTENTIONS, a Romanian feature which stood far above the rest of the competition films. It was shot in a subjective POV style (imagine Peep Show but less irritating) with quite astonishing consistency and powerful camerawork. All round top notch performances and a simple yet completely universal story.

The main jury prize went to the Polish drama COURAGE, about two rival brothers running a business until a tragic event makes one of them question everything. A fairly conventional picture, it was solid and never boring, but I thought it unremarkable.

The main jury also gave BEST INTENTIONS a special mention for Direction and a shared acting prize for the lead actresses of AVE, KLIP and LOVERBOY.

KLIPS was the film with the most buzz behind it because of its explicit sexual scenes featuring teenagers - the problem is I found the sex boring even if the rest of the film was fairly interesting, if a little cliched.

I won't review every single film here, but special mention should go to THE ISLAND a really bizzare film which is really two features packed into one. It's poorly made at every level and I found it crossed the line between bad, good and back to bad again a few times.

Another interesting one was THE IDIOT, an Estonian adaptation of Dostoevasky's classic novel that was like being inside someone's nightmare for 145 minutes. A brave effort that fails on every count.

So, that might be my last festival this year as the work in Brighton heats up and we open our new venue (see previous post). I'll be recording a podcast with Rob talking about some of these films on Saturday. Until then, as they say in Lithuania, sudie!

A new venue

I return to the UK tonight after a week at the Vilnius Film Festival KINO PAVASIRIS - and as sad as I am to leave, I am super excited because of the news about our expansion being announced today back home.

For months now we have been in talks with the KOMEDIA, a great music, theatre and comedy venue in the heart of the North Laine in Brighton, about expanding the Duke of York's into their building. After finalising the details we were able to announce today that we're building a new three screen cinema inside the Komedia building. I'll be managing both sites and overseeing the opening, which is targeted for December this year.

We've been looking to expand for many years, with many unfruitful attempts at moving into the fire station next door - but this new development not only means more screens, it also begins a collaboration with a legendary Brighton venue and gives us presence in the heart of the city, in its coolest area.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Vilnius Day 3 & 4

The good weather has given way to snow and cold but the hospitality and relentless schedule of films has kept us warm. At this rate, I'll end up seeing more films than in Berlin!

Three more competition films. I probably should refrain from talking to much about them as we have to judge them in a few days, but we saw: THE MAIDEN DANCED TO DEATH, a Bulgarian film about two brothers trying to put on a dance production in Budapest; VISIBLE WORLD, an austere Slovakian feature with a lead actor that looks a lot like Billy Bob Thornton. And finally, COURAGE, a Polish drama also about two brothers in conflict. We have four more features to watch to complete the competition programme (I saw some of these already in Sarajevo - A TRIP, AVE & LOVERBOY)

THE FIRST MAN was a sincere yet flawed adaptation of Albert Camus' novel which fails to engage the audience despite the incendiary material it's dealing with (the Algerian-French war of the 1950s-60s, so beautifully rendered in Pontecorvo's BATTLE OF ALGIERS). The performance by Jacques Gamblin is fantastic, particularly since he is given very little to work with, and the flashbacks are cliched and slow the contemporary story down.

Yet another Herzog film, one that previews tonight in the UK, INTO THE ABYSS is the German director's exploration of a triple homicide in Texas and the aftermath for both victims and perpetrators. The film is so bleak and grim on every level that I felt as though someone had placed a huge slab of stone on my chest and it took all night to remove it. But I am uncertain how much that has to do with Herzog's film and how much to do with the subject itself. The story is populated with poor, uneducated people whose lives are a spiral of substance abuse, violence and prison time. Herzog's style of seeking out eccentric characters and looking for comic oddballs doesn't really work in this instance and it often feels like he has contempt for his protagonists. That contempt often crosses the line into ridicule and what should have been an austere and respectful piece becomes comedy for snobbish intellectuals as we laugh at the illiterate roofer or the delusional death row wife.

Four more features to go for the competition and I'm sure I'll watch some other films.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Vilnius, Day 1 & 2

I arrived late on Friday night to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius for the KINO PAVASIRIS film festival, where I am serving on the CICAE (International Federation of Arthouse Cinemas) Jury. We've go tot judge 11 competition films, but I am also using this as an opportunity to catch up on some other festival films.

Yesterday I watched EVEN THE RAIN, the Paul Laverty-scripted, Iciar Bollain (the Spanish actress turned director who made TAKE MY EYES) film starring Gael Garcia Bernal as an obsessive director making a film about Christopher Columbus in Bolivia at the height of the 'water wars' of 2000. His producer (Luis Tosar) is a cynical and tough businessman whose perspective on the world is transformed by events. I have great sympathy for Laverty, who wrote the Nicaragua-based CARLA'S SONG for Ken Loach and has written all of Loach's films since - and full disclaimer, Laverty is also a patron of the SAVE CINE ESTELI campaign I lead - and his concerns in this film are genuine and heartfelt. The film is beautifully shot, wonderfully acted (particularly Karra Elejade as a drunken actor playing Columbus), but the final act is highly implausible and lets the rest of the film down.

A new Werner Herzog film is, for many people, an event. So it's strange that HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA is not getting more attention. It has all the hallmarks of classic Herzog: animals behaving in incomprehensible ways, man battling nature, the cruelty of the elements, a heavily opinionated voice over, and eccentric characters. Perhaps because its a co-directorial effort with Russian filmmaker Dimitri Vasyukov, or because its been touring festival for a couple of years now and in the meantime we've had two other Herzog projects through the pipeline. Either way, it's a fascinating, beautifully made tale of life in one of the planet's most extreme environments. Unfortunately the DVD presentation was of a poor quality, but the sheer power of the images overcame this technical problem. HAPPY PEOPLE is essential viewing for Herzog fanatics who crave his brand of narrated man versus nature films.

Finally, the opening film of the competition programme (and the first we've all watched as a Jury) was MONTEVIDEO, GOD BLESS YOU, a Serbian film which has broken box office records in its native country - and you can see why. A nationalistic hymn to Serbian character and football skills, this is a cliche-ridden, high in fructose confection of a movie - and the audience loved every minute of it. The story of how the first Serbian football team came together in the 1930s, I can't see how this film can travel beyond the Balkans, with its constant references to Balkan history and cultural jokes about the former Yugoslavian republics. It also has one of the most grating violin scores ever placed on film. Apparently there is a sequel in production right now.

Today we have two more competition films to watch plus a short made by my friend Ieva - so I'll be back tomorrow to report on those.

Thursday, 8 March 2012


On Tuesday, Rob Beames and I recorded a podcast talking about all the Avengers movies: IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, IRON MAN 2, THOR & CAPTAIN AMERICA, as well as discussing our hopes and fears for the upcoming (and now awkwardly titled) MARVEL'S AVENGERS ASSEMBLE, coming out April 27.

You can listen to it on iTunes or stream it off the Picturehouse website.

Unfortunately the all night Avengers marathon we had planned has been cancelled due to Paramount putting all the movies (except HULK, which is Universal) on moratorium. This is a common - and frankly ridiculous - practice amongst distributors, in the belief that this builds momentum or anticipation for the upcoming film. In fact what it does is annoy people at a time when attention is focused on these characters and films.

That set aside, we recorded the podcast not just to promote the now cancelled all-nighter, but because in cinematic history there hasn't been anything like this - and although the commercial and corporate decision making behind it is shameless, I do derive some genuine geek thrills from the idea of mixing all these superheroes into one movie, and I really hope it's successful.

The movies leading up to AVENGERS are wildly uneven, and I think that there are really only two good ones: THOR & CAPTAIN AMERICA. IRON MAN has some good moments but its sequel is a mess, and HULK is a massive misfire. THOR in particular is a pretty good film in any genre, and reminded me of Richard Donner's SUPERMAN, which takes a trashy comic book and tries to elevate it to the level of drama. Branagh tackled the story as seriously and as stylishly as his Shakespeare adaptations and delivers thrills with believable characters.

CAPTAIN AMERICA, now one of Rob's favorite films, is an honest, simple movie that does the job, but I don't share his wild enthusiasm, given the structural problems.

I was very pleased to hear Joss Whedon was chosen to helm the AVENGERS movie. I'm a big fan of his BUFFY and FIREFLY series and his only feature SERENITY. I think he's a talented writer, and always delivers strong female characters. His deft skill with an ensemble and intimate knowledge of the comic book world - and as the creator of his own 'universe' - he seems like a perfect choice for this job. This shows a creative nerve from Marvel which is absent from a lot of studios, who could've easily given this to someone as crass as McG or Michael Bay.

You can read Rob's much more comprehensive piece about the AVENGERS here.

I'm sure we'll talk about AVENGERS when we see it, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Berlinale, Part 2

My second and last update for the Berlinale 2012 edition is much smaller as I've taken a much more relaxed approach to the scheduling as mentioned in my previous post. I also recorded a podcast with Rob Beames, who has seen a lot more films than me.

Here's a summary:

Chris Keneally's documentary SIDE BY SIDE was one of the highlights of the festival. A comprehensive doc about the advent of digital technology in cinema, it addresses every single aspect of the debate from the sceptics (Chirstopher Nolan) to the evangelists (David Fincher). Keanu Reeves produced and did the interviews himself, and was on hand to talk about the film afterwards. You'll never think of Neo the same way again.

Zhang Yimou's epic THE FLOWERS OF WAR, starring Christian Bale, was an epic misfire. Tasteless, over the top and frankly offensive, this movie fails on every level. I can't see this working at all outside China.

Billy Bob Thornton's first film in a decade, JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR, suffers from both too long a running time and too short a running time; developed as an HBO show this could be masterful, and cut by half hour it could be a real gem. The writing is sharp and some of the vignettes are pure Raymond Carver but too many characters deliver long speeches about the war - bringing the movie to a halt. Robert Duvall on LSD is a sight to behold, however.

Swiss-French production SISTER was another good, but not spectacular, film which was mildly satisfying - with some amazing performances and scenes, but nothing I haven't seen before. Watching Gillian Anderson speaking French is always a pleasure.

German family drama HOME FOR THE WEEKEND was a modest, quiet affair that felt like Germany's answer to ARCHIPELAGO, the story of an upper middle class family facing some internal trauma. Like many of the films in the festival, a decent, 3 out of 5.

One of the worse films to play in a major festival as far as I can recall, CHERRY was like an episode of 90210 turned into a feature by virtue of the presence of James Franco and Heather Graham (in a clear nod to BOOGIE NIGHTS, which this does not even come close to). Poorly directed, acted and written, it was a hard watch.

A nice surprise came from the FORUM section, where German feature SPANIEN played at the beautiful DELPHI cinema in West Berlin. A collection of intertwining stories with a very Kaurismaki tone, the film delivers tension and laughs in equal measure with a keen eye for details. A real gem.

I'm now back in Brighton and will be recording a full round up next weekend on our podcast so you can get the full lowdown on every feature in competition, plus all the awards and buzz.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Berlinale 2012, Part 1

This year I have definitely taken a step back in terms of my film schedule and emphasized networking, socialising and even a touch of partying over serious film-watching. I think I've earned the break.

That said, I've seen a few films so far:

As part of the Retrospective this year, Berlin is looking back at the work of joint German-Soviet studio Mezhrabpom-Film, which released dozens of films in the 1920s and 1930s before the Nazis shut it down. GOLDEN LAKE was an expedition adventure film with a strong Communist message and some daring rock climbing. It's the original Mission Impossible stunts: actors, clearly working with few regards for health & safety, fight, jump and swim through the Mongolian landscape with verve. The film was a little clumsy, and its message none too subtle, but I enjoyed it.

The next of the Soviet retrospective was THE GIRL WITH THE HAT BOX, a charming comedy commissioned by the Government to sell premium bonds, it's one of the wittiest films I have ever seen, and it was silent. I had no idea silent comedies could be anything other than slapstick - this was like a Soviet Lubitsch at work; and some research reveals that director Boris Barnet was one of the leaders of his filmic generation without the fame of an Eisenstein or Vertov. This is the best film I've seen so far here.

The first (and only so far) competition film I saw was the Taviani Brothers' CAESAR MUST DIE, a docudrama hybrid about a group of inmates in a high security prison performing Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar. It was imaginative, inventine, honest and often funny - and made the play come alive. Everything CORIOLANUS, which I saw last year in the same cinema, should have been.

After getting shut out of CAPTIVES, we took a punt on Panorama documentary MARINA ABRAMOVIC: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT, which was an emotional and pleasant surprise; a fairly generic HBO doc which is elevated by its subject matter - an incredible artist and woman about which I knew very little and now want to know a lot more of.

Finally, another shut-out pushed me into Tony Gatlif's INDIGNADOS (THE OUTRAGED), a well-intentioned but fairly awful piece of agit-prop cinema that is loosely linked to the Occupy movement which started in Spain last year. Clunky, like a university project created by committee, I really wanted to like this but it just made it impossible to.

Tomorrow I switch gears and will begin to watch a lot more - first screening at 9am!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Berlinale 2012

This year, for the third time in a row, I'll be attending the Berlinale Film Festival. It's become somewhat of a tradition for me since 2009, when I went to reunite with my Venice friends.

This year I've decided to schedule fewer competition films and take some time to explore the retrospective, this year called THE RED DREAM FACTORY, looking back at German-Russian film studio: Mezhrabpom-Film and its German branch Prometheus, which operated from 1922 to 1936.

I'm also keen to do some straight tourism, as my visits to this incredible city have always been mostly contained inside dark auditoriums. I'll be posting updates here as I normally do during festivals, and will be recording a couple of podcasts with Robert Beames, who's at Berlin for the Telegraph.

Bis sp├Ąter!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

David Fincher: Some Thoughts

On Saturday Rob Beames and I will be recording one of our 'pantheon' podcasts, where we look at a director we both like and discuss their work. We chose Fincher to coincide with the release of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO but the homework took a bit longer than we expected. Rob watched a lot of his films for the first time and I revisited all of them.

In many ways, Fincher's film career started exactly like Ridley Scott's and James Cameron: taking on an ALIEN film for Fox while still being an unknown, untested. This experience, unlike Scott and Cameron, nearly destroyed his career and he still disowns the film. But you can see, even in that flawed feature, the seeds of his future career.

For me, Fincher is the master of two things: night time cinematography and unnerving tension. Like a goth version of Hitchcock, he builds uneasiness into his films, and at the end of a Fincher you feel unsettled, shaken. This atmosphere exists in all his work, even his lesser features (Benjamin Button, Alien 3) and is the foundation of his best films (Zodiac, Se7en, Fight Club).

His technical know-how and narrative grip puts him in the camp of efficient manipulators in Hollywood, which starts with Hitchcock but also runs through Spielberg and De Palma. But apart from his capacity to grab you by the throat through the medium of cinema, he also betrays an ambition to say something. Fight Club, Zodiac and The Social Network are works of an artist struggling to break free from the 'head in the box' syndrome post-Se7en, a genre he has returned to again and again (Panic Room, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). Does he enjoy the down and dirty serial killers or is he paying the mortgage?

If we were looking for auterist signature preoccupations, the one that I find over and over again is his interest in research. From Morgan Freeman's long hours in the library to Daniel Craig's looking at pictures over and over again, his love of looking stuff up reached its zenith in Zodiac, a film that resembles more a puzzle than a movie.

I think that given the right material, Fincher could produce a series of masterpieces of the caliber of Zodiac - but his next project doesn't inspire confidence: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a big Disney property which will have to adhere to strict market rules.

In a relatively short career he has achieved quite a lot. Here's to a long and puzzled career.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Film Policy Review Notes

Here’s my take on the new Film Policy Review after having read it all. First of all, it strikes me as a mistake to include two heads of companies who benefit from the current disfunction. The CEOs of Sony Pictures UK and Vue Cinemas are part of the problem and can't be part of the solution.

As pointed out by Jim Barratt in Bigger Picture Research, this review treads upon previously debated points, initiatives and former reviews, like A Bigger Picture from 1998. That report led directly to the creation of the UKFC). So while the 56 recommendations contain lots of common sense ideas, there is nothing revolutionary about it.

What this writer would have liked to see is a radical approach to the lack of British success in cinemas like a quota system, or a tax on audiovisual product, or a network of publicly funded cinemas (or at least public support for companies like Picturehouses, who open cinemas in city centres across the country).

The report acknowledges the market failures presented by the film business but then recoils from presenting honest ways of dealing with them, i.e. government intervention and protectionism. Where in other sectors the government will happily protect medical research, automotive industry or agricultural exports, film is seen to have to live and die on its own feet.

At the same time, what little intervention is allowed is concentrated on the production end, with no attention to the other ends of the film value chain.

One dangerous statement: ‘ensuring filmmakers start with audiences” – anytime a government agency prescribes where and how filmmakers should operate it’s a slippery slope to committee-agreed films that are neither art nor commerce – just products.

If commercial success is what we want, then the current (not classic) US studio model is the best bet: pre-existing properties (TV shows, sequels, best-sellers, comic books) turned into generically made films that appeal to the widest international audience. This is how studios control international markets, combining the safest possible material with a carpet-bombing approach to marketing.

If we decide that this is the way forward, we have a lot of catching up to do – Hollywood has over 100 years of experience.

If, on the other hand, we look the the continent for inspiration (France for example) we find a successful industry, producing a wide variety of films, from small aueterist pieces to big blockbusters. How did they achieve it?

- With protectionist policies, like excluding culture as a commodity from the WTO negotiations, despite heavy pressure from the US. Allowing culture to be traded as freely as any other commodity would only further intensify the US’s grip on worldwide cinema culture and markets.
- Taxing all audiovisual products, creating a fund (the CNC) which helps all layers of the industry, from production to exhibition. This ensures a steady flow of capital to the industry.
- A quota system that applies to all cinemas, meaning there is a steady demand for French product.
- Intense film education throughout the whole educational system, which creates film-literate audiences who then becomes customers for homegrown cinema.

That Hollywood will dominate film culture for the foreseeable future is a given. The only thing countries that wish to preserve an industry, a culture and an identity can do is put in place defenses that will slightly tip the balance in the other direction. In France, American films still account for the majority of the market – but somewhere nearer 60%, not 90%, like the UK.

But what’s good about this report? There are some good ideas here:

- Reccomendation no. 3 is the best thing in the report “creating a UK-wide film network”. Too bad it’s not too specific.
- Recommendation no. 5 is more detailed, saying film socities and film clubs should receive more support. Absolutely.
- Recommendation no .7 is a small step towards doing what I say the French have been doing for decades…teach cinema in schools!
- Recommendation no. 13 identifies the problem with the current VPF model but offers no solution.
- Recommendation 32 – asking, then forcing, TV and cable providers to support British cinema is brilliant.

What’s outright awful?

- Recommendation no. 2 (and the heart of this review) – building a British ‘brand’ sounds like a bad idea. What is British? How do you identify it? Because the British brand that sells abroad is not one we want to be proud of internally. Also ‘British Film Week’ is gimmicky.
- Recommendation no. 24 – encouraging test screenings is a bad idea. They don’t even work in Hollywood.
- Recommendation no. 55 – why not encourage private investment and philanthropy in distribution and exhibition as well?

Of course the Government might choose to ignore all of these ideas. We’ll have to wait a couple of months to see what their response is….

Monday, 16 January 2012

Splendor Cinema Podcast 84

In a new tradition, I shall be posting here every time we record a podcast in order to create a stronger link between this blog and our podcast.

This week, Rob and I sat down and played catch up as we hadn't done a straight review show in some time. There's a lot of films out there right now, and we've seen a bunch of them. So we reviewed SHAME, THE IRON LADY, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 4, MARGIN CALL, CORIOLANUS and THE ARTIST.

The glut of 'quality' films is overwhelming this time of year and is a real distortion of the calendar created just to generate awards buzz. Come summer time and the Olympics we'll be craving adult dramas.

That said, you'll never guess from the list above which was our favorite of the list!

Listen on iTunes: Splendor Cinema
Or on the Picturehouse website: Splendor Cinema

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Cameron Vs Loach

Yesterday all hell broke loose as David Cameron made some remarks on the state and future of the film industry, remarking that support for more 'commercial' projects was needed. Ken Loach came on to the BBC to fly the flag for smaller, more niche films. This oversimplification played straight into the hands of the news media, who don't understand the film business, as the terrible Newsnight piece (which featured a smart statement by my boss Lyn Goleby) demonstrated.

The reality is neither Cameron nor Ed Vaizey (or Jeremy Hunt) have a clue what to do with the UK film industry. Labour didn't either but at least they threw some money at it, which, although mostly a failure, did help. The reality is that we have an industry completely controlled by US studios, and the language issue binds us tighter to Hollywood than our European counterparts. As early as the 1920s the UK government was struggling with this problem and established levies on ticket prices to support Pinewood. But the approach has always been production-centered, as if making a lot of movies would magically solve the problem.

The key to success are audiences, not filmmakers, and in that respect, Cameron's remarks are not far off. We obviously have a huge pool of incredible talent. What we're missing are audiences for anything that isn't a 'property' like Bond or Potter. How do you build audiences, you ask? Well, you'll be surprised to hear, as an exhibitor, it all starts with cinemas. No matter how brilliant you think THE KING'S SPEECH is, you need a cinema close to your customers in order to truly maximise its market share. Like any service industry, you need to be on the high street in order to deliver your product. Just ask Tesco, or Starbucks. If you build it, they WILL come. I am talking about interesting looking cinemas, in good looking buildings, staffed by knowledgable film lovers, with cafes and restaurants, not conveyor belts for teenagers. In other words, I am talking about Picturehouses. Why not fund a network of regional film theatres dedicated to interesting and challenging programming?

The French have been smart about this, not just with quotas, but also by having vertically integrated film companies that make, distribute and exhibit films - this has ring fenced their industry, creating a wide and diverse range of films, from big homegrown blockbusters to small arthouse films, with an audience at home and abroad.

I know it grinds British people but we do have so much to learn from the French in this respect. And we need to start re-opening and building new cinemas!

Image stolen from the GQ website.