The International (US-Germany-UK, 2009)

Banking on justice

Banking on justice

In the 1930s the Warners gangster cycle was sold as movies made off newspaper headlines. The International is, the end credits suggest, made off today’s headlines. I think that’s true except the newspapers don’t explain what’s behind the events; this film does. Based on the premise that international finance is corrupt (who’s going to argue with that?) the film investigates ‘how much can good people do?’

If that sounds too heavy then the film delivers as a thriller with a fantastic set piece in the Guggenheim museum that has shades of Michael Mann.  Clive Owen’s hero remains human and fear leaks off him when he’s under fire: he’s no Bourne killing machine or Bond poser.

From the opening sequence Tom Tykwer’s direction is gripping and locations, numerous cities across Europe, as well as New York, are used brilliantly. There’s a constant refrain of overhead shots making people seem like ants; referencing Harry Lime’s speech in The Third Man (1949). The International has the kick of an early ’70s ‘New Hollywood’ paranoia thriller with an intense topicality that makes it the first ‘must see’ movie of 2009.

The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret, Israel-France-US, 2007)

A fisherman's tale

A fisherman's tale

This is a beautifully observed ‘culture clash’ comedy, and when those cultures are Arabic and Israeli the resonances are large. Politics is largely absent but the Middle East conflict is so profound that it remains a loud subtext throughout. The film never becomes sentimental as the Egyptian band, marooned in Nowheresville, Israel, are befriended – more or less – by the locals, as it never loses sight of the deep loneliness experienced by many of the characters. Tears, therefore, spring from both happiness, at the humanist approach of the film, and sadness,

The direction is terrific as it allows space for the performers, particulary Sasson Gabai‘s often impassive demeanour, and offers some wonderful shots of the concrete hewn spaces in which the action takes place. The scene where the likeable rake, Halid, coaches his inexperienced ‘friend’ in the art of seduction – all in one shot – is a comic classic.

Revolutionary Road (US-UK, 2008)

Love at a dead end

Love at a dead end

Great novel + terrific cast = mediocre movie; what went wrong? The direction.

In choosing widescreen Mendes is inviting comparison with the great ’50s melodramas of Ray and Minnelli and delivers a mise en scene virtually devoid of meaning other than ‘setting’. Maybe choosing to shoot on location drastically limited what could be done but there are only two really impression ‘visuals’ in the film: Frank’s commute and John Givings’ rant/breakdown (great use of rack focus).

To accentuate the positive: Yates’ depiction of the American Nightmare is pitch perfect, though the film misses April’s gradual disintegration which happens, virtually, overnight. Fortunately Winslet is able to convey the descent to a Stepford Wife with great skill. Di Caprio offers good support – a marvellous ‘carpet chewing’ scene when he really loses it – as does Kathy Bates and Michael Shannon. So well worth seeing but it you’re making a melodrama lets have shedloads excess in the mise en scene!

Tropic Thunder (US-Germany, 2008)

No you're not funny

No you're not funny

Why is this film rubbish? Is it:

  • the representation of Laotians as simple, violent people?
  • Robert Downey’s mumbling so you can’t understand what he’s saying?
  • the non -development of the implications of Downey’s character blacking up?
  • the offensive representation of the agent’s son?
  • the cack-handed way the promising premise is developed?

All of these I think.

Cruel Intentions (US, 1999)

One's good; one's bad

One's good; one's bad

Director: Roger Kumble
Screenplay: Roger Kumble suggested by the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses
Editors: Jeff Freeman
Music: Edward Shearmur
Producers: Neal H Moritz
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair.

At first glance Cruel Intentions is typical of High Concept films as it has a simple narrative idea, is an adaptation and uses well-known stars. However, as the number of taglines suggest, there are a number of ways of summarising the narrative:

In addition, the poster does not offer a narrative image. It appears that we have a menage a trois, but this is not really the case. Of the stars, Reece Witherspoon, Ryan Phillipe and Sarah Michelle Gellar only Gellar was very well known, primarily for her role as Buffy (the vampire slayer). However, the film does possess other High Concept elements such as the glossy visual style, an obvious music track (including 17 songs) and postmodern irony.

In Hollywood terms, the budget ($11m – source was minuscule allowing the film to be targeted at a niche market. The niche, 16-25 year olds, is the core cinema-going audience. However, most mainstream films, in order to be profitable, aim at a much wider audience and look to spin-offs, such as merchandise, to reach profitability. As a rough rule-of-thumb, movies need to take two and a half times their cost to break even so Cruel Intentions less than spectacular North American box office gross of $38.3m was almost certainly sufficient to put producer Neal H Moritz in profit. International grosses, video rentals and sales plus television rights will obviously add to the profitability.

High Concept films usually have merchandise built into the script (such as the new doll, Jessie, in Toy Story 2, 1999), which can help such films become immensely profitable. The lack of stars in many teen-pics is crucial in keeping the budget relatively low and so reducing the break-even barrier. Moritz, dubbed ‘Mr Teen’ by Screen International, specialises in low budget genre movies aimed at pleasing young cinemagoers. He had his biggest hit, The Fast and the Furious, this summer.

Columbia Tristar, part of the Sony group, distributed Cruel Intentions. Sony’s core business is consumer electronics and it paid $3.4 billion in 1989 for the Hollywood studio. The Japanese company manufactured the hardware (televisions, VCRs and so on) but needed to also produce software (in this case films) to be shown on their equipment. This may seem like control freakery but Sony had lost out in the ‘video format’ battle of the late 1970s when their (superior) system, Betamax, foundered as consumers chose VHS. VHS won the battle because there were more films available in that format. Sony thus bought Columbia to guarantee a stream of product for whatever format they would manufacture next.

Since the 1980s, Hollywood studios have been bought by companies whose core business is the media. This contrasts with the studio-owning conglomerates of the 1970s where there was often only tenuous links at best between their divisions. For example, Columbia Pictures Industries owned D. Gottleib and co., a pinball machine company. Paramount Pictures was part of Gulf + Western that included over 300 companies such as Peavey Paper Mills, Schrafft’s Candles and Collyer Insulated Wire.

Viacom, a company that focuses upon the audio-visual entertainment industry as a whole, now owns Paramount. This Hollywood studio can take advantage of its sister companies when promoting a new film. Clueless (1995), as a teen pic, could be promoted on Viacom’s MTV stations, effectively, free of charge. This ability to promote product across the media is an example of synergy. The belief in synergy has been the driving force in the consolidation of the media industry in the last 20 years.

The benefits of synergy are more than cross-promotion: the album soundtrack can be released on a company’s record label (for example, Time Warner’s Austin Powers: the Spy Who Shagged Me, 1999) and adaptations of television programmes can be produced by the conglomerate’s film studio. For example, the Rugrats franchise (the term emphasises the business approach to making programmes and films) originated on Viacom’s Nickelodeon channel. The company is currently taking this process a step further with Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, this is the first ‘simultaneous cross-platform entertainment concept – a movie, a TV series, a soundtrack, a comic book and a merchandising play’. (Seguin, 2001, p. 8 )

Cruel Intentions was not made with the intention of selling merchandise, other than the video release. It’s only spin-off was a made for TV sequel. However, consumer goods are emphasised by the product placement of branded goods aimed at the youth market. In considering the film it is worth asking effect the emphasis on consumer goods might have on the audience.

Denis Seguin (2001) ‘all systems go’ Screen International No. 1328, October 12

Charlie’s Angels (US-Germany, 2000)

Recycling everything

Recycling everything

Director: McG
Screenplay: Ryan Rowe, Ed Solomon & John August
Editors: Wayne Wahrman & Peter Teschner
Music: Edward Shearmur
Producers: Leonard Goldberg, Drew Barrymore & Nancy Juvonen
Cast: Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, Bill Murray, Sam Rockwell.

The essence of the High Concept, or potential blockbuster, movies is that it should be easy to sell to audiences (and, initially, the financial backers). Remakes are, by their nature, pre-sold. Hollywood has always cannibalised literature – novels and plays – however it was not until the 1990s that television came to be seen as a rich source of material.

Hollywood relationship with television, during the ‘box’s’ early years was riven by suspicion. The major studios failed to realise that television was in the same business as they were:

Although Hollywood started producing programmes for television as early as 1949, Columbia’s Screen Gems, it was not until after RKO, in 1955, sold its film library to a TV syndicate that it realised the value that could be given to their back catalogue and:

by 1958 an estimated 3,7000 features, mostly of pre-1949 vintage, had been sold or leased to TV for an estimated $220 million. (Balio, 1976a, p. 322)

In 1991 The Addams Family earned $113.5m at the North American box office and this led to a slew of adaptations of old TV programmes. While most of today’s core cinema-going audience (16-25s) wouldn’t remember these programmes they had cultural resonance and a proven appeal. Essentially, though, they needed to be adapted to the contemporary mode of making movies (with a reliance on computer generated special effects, CGI) and changing modes of representation:

The original TV Charlie’s Angels executive producer, Leonard Goldberg, is quoted on the film’s DVD notes:

“The feature version would include the most recent recruits, women who are representative of Angels in the year 2000.”

Contemporary blockbusters are invariably ‘action’ movies, facilitating scenarios for CGI pyrotechnics, with a male hero saving the world (and the girl). Apart from notable exceptions such as Ripley in the Alien series (plus Buffy and Xena on television) women in action movies have had subsidiary roles focusing on their looks: they’re feisty but ultimately need the bloke to save them. Angels self-consciously attempts to adapt the macho action hero in a feminine way; Cameron Diaz is quoted on DVD notes:

‘Drew said, ‘It’s going to be a chick action movie. We get to be beautiful and tough, and we wear bad-ass clothes. We won’t have guns, and we get to do kung fu. In this movie, it’s the girls that are going to kick ass.”

The ‘tongue-in-cheek’ mode of address is a crucial component of contemporary action movies. Audiences are not expected to suspend their disbelief but join in the fun of the absurd game being played out on the screen.

Drew Barrymore produced the film (with Goldberg and Nancy Juvonen her partner in Flower Pictures); amongst the executive producers is Betty Thomas, one of the few women entrusted to direct big budget movies (The Flintstones, 1994). The presence of a number of female ‘players’ highlights the gender politics being played out in the film.

The director, as in 90% of Hollywood movies, is male (as are the scriptwriters). Typically of High Concept film, McG’s background is in music video and advertising. The visual sheen, and postmodern playfulness, nurtured by MTV is seen as a prerequisite for entertaining today’s mass audience. However, the musical sequences in Charlie’s Angels have more in common with the MGM musical than MTV video.

As noted above, action films usually have male protagonists. The narrative hero resolves the problem created by the villain and in doing so often save the ‘princess’. Although the ‘angels’ are, literally, ‘kick ass’ characters they ultimately defer to Charlie. Indeed they relate to the patriarchal figure in a ‘girlish’ fashion. In addition, they take their orders from Bosley. This may suggest that the ‘angels’ are only apparently the film’s protagonists because they defer to men.

However in Charlie’s Angels the ‘princess’ figure is Charlie as it is he that needs saving from the villain.

Hollywood action movies often cast British actors in the role of the villain (a sign of cultural insecurity or stars’ reluctance to tarnish their persona by playing the ‘baddy’?). Gary Oldman, in The Fifth Element (1997) satirised this tendency with his deep southern drawl. The casting of Tim Curry in Charlie’s Angels is part playful, part narrative misdirection.

Although it is often assumed that High Concept films are politically conservative, the ‘efficiency scene’ suggests that Karl Marx was correct.

The biggest star in the film is Cameron Diaz who, like a number of other contemporary stars, is equally at home in ‘art’ cinema as she is in ‘commercial’ movies.

Tino Balio (1976a) ‘Retrenchment, reappraisal, and reorganization: 1948 to…’ in Tino Balio (ed.) The American Film Industry, Madison & London: University of Wisconsin Press

Nick Lacey & Roy Stafford Film as Product in Contemporary Hollywood, London: British Film Institute Education

My Son the Fanatic (UK, 1997)

Lost in a world neither east or west

Lost in a world neither east or west

Director: Udayan Prasad
Screenplay: Hanif Kureishi
Editors: David Gamble
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Producers: Chris Curling
Cinematographer: Alan Almond
Cast: Om Puri, Rachel Griffiths and Stellan Skarsgard

Although Hanif Kureishi is a writer, his work has been regularly adapted for the screen. His work, starting with My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), has often attempted to offer a view on the ‘state of the nation’, though not exclusively at a British Asian perspective (his autobiographical novel The Buddha of Suburbia was adapted for television in 1993).

Kureishi has stated he wrote My Son the Fanatic as an attempt to understand the apparent embrace, by British Asian youths, of the fatwa pronounced upon Salman Rushdie. Using melodrama, he casts Parvez as a man ‘stuck’ between cultures and estranged from his ‘fundamentalist’ son. Islam is, overall, pretty negatively represented, however the ‘west’ – characterised by the German capitalist, with the emblematic name, Schitz – is hardly shown to be better.

The BBC primarily funded the film; the Arts Council and the French television channel Canal Plus also contributed. It was low budget – around £2m – and clearly destined for the arthouse circuit. The British film industry, to the extent that it exists, has heavily relied upon television funding since the 1980s when Channel 4 stimulated a renaissance of low budget, social realist film-making (which included My Beautiful Laundrette). Like many nations’ industries, Britain’s distribution and exhibition is dominated by Hollywood product; in contrast virtually all British films are treated as arthouse in North America (My Son the Fanatic grossed a respectable $500,000).

In 2001 the top grossing wholly UK film in Britain was The Parole Officer, which took £3,283,870; this compared to the £57m taken by that year’s box office winner Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Although Harry Potter was filmed in Britain, to British material with a wholly British cast, it was financed by Warner Bros. and reeked of Hollywood production values. Number two (with £42m), Bridget Jones’ Diary, that year has more claims to be culturally British: despite the presence of Texan Renee Zellwegger, the central character’s insecurity made her distinctly British – Americans tend to deal in success.

British audiences apparently prefer Hollywood films. The British industry, however, cannot financially compete with Hollywood; at least, when it tries it normally only succeeds in creating a great ‘mid-Atlantic’ bomb. The history of British cinema can be seen as a series of attempts to take on Hollywood that have led to financial disaster. Rank in the 1940s; Thorn-EMI and Goldcrest in the 1980s; most recently, the demise of Film Four.

My Son the Fanatic made little inroads into the consciousness of most in Britain, however it can obviously be studied as an example of British cinema from the late 1990s. Whilst hardly a trend, two Asian-themed British films were released to great box office success after My Son: East is East (1999) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002). Producers of both films related how difficult it was to get finance for what were perceived to be minority subjects. They both ‘crossed over’ to the mainstream and their commercial success might herald a multi-cultural maturity to the British film industry.

Show Me Love (Fucking Amal, Denmark-Sweden, 1998)

Love in a cold climate

Love in a cold climate

Director: Lukas Moodysson
Screenplay: Lukas Moodysson
Editors: Michal Leszczylowski & Bernhard Winkler
Music Mixer: Morten Holm
Producers: Lars Jonsson
Cinematographer: Ulf Brantas
Cast: Alexandra Dahlstrom, Rebecca Lijeberg, Erica Carlson & Mathias Rust

Naturalism began in the theatre as a form that tried to erase the obvious contrivance of the medium by constructing the ‘fourth wall’ and so rendering the audience invisible to the players. In addition, actors worked at becoming the characters they played, rather than representing them, and the narratives focused on slices ordinary people’s life.

The ‘fourth’ wall of cinema – in effect, the camera – has always been erased in ‘classical’ film style. To take this a step further naturalistic cinema usually adopts a documentary style, or approach, to filming. The use of handheld camera connotes realism, the soundtrack may be mixed to muffle some dialogue and the characters may not even be played by actors. Show Me Love is a teen pic that magnifies the banality of everyday life in small town Sweden with a lesbian ‘coming of age’ drama. A largely amateur cast play out everyday life:

The inaction reaches fever pitch: Agnes waits for a phone call; Elin abandons a party to hang off a motorway bridge spitting on passing traffic. (Spencer, 2000, p. 52c)

The very banality of the characters’ lives helps signify the film as realist because we are used to seeing glamorous or exciting lives represented in mainstream cinema. The (mildly) controversial subject matter (the degree of shock, if any, is likely to be determined by age and background) of the lesbian love story is typical of Naturalism. In the 19th century, women’s sexual feelings, sexually transmitted diseases and poverty were likely subjects for the form.

Despite its realist credentials Show Me Love is inevitably as constructed as any Hollywood fantasy. The only difference between this small budget Swedish film and, say Spider-Man (2002), which can also be seen as a teen pic, is the codes and conventions it uses.

The fact that, to most audiences in Britain, the film is showing us everyday life in a country they have never visited, and doesn’t get much coverage in the media, reinforces the sense of realism as the film takes on an ethnographic function. We may conclude, having seen the film, that young people are pretty much the same in Sweden.

Naturalism in theatre and literature had a fatalistic element, Show Me Love, however, portrays characters who transcend their social circumstance. The representation of young people is generally sympathetic and homosexuality is shown to be simply a sexuality and only a problem because of entrenched attitudes. A brief surf on the internet revealed a number of sites dedicated to the film (check out links on my site) suggesting that many young people found the film profoundly moving through their identification with the characters.

Moodysson’s follow up Together (Tillsammans, 2000) – using a similarly realistic style – poked gentle fun at a 1970s hippy commune and his most recent feature, Lilja 4-ever (2002), has received critical plaudits in the few places it has been released to date. He is obviously a talent to watch.

Liese Spencer (2000) ‘Show Me Love/Fucking Amal’ Sight and Sound vol.10, No. 3

Sex and Lucia (Sexo y Lucia (Spain-France, 2001)

Postmodern tragedy

Postmodern tragedy

Director – Julio Medem
Producer – Fernand Bovaira, Enrique Lopez Lavigne
Script – Julio Medem
Art Direction – Montse Sanz
Cinematography – Kiko de la Rica
Music – Alberto Iglesias
Cast – Paz Vega, Tristan Ulloa, Najwa Nimri, Daniel Freire
Running time 128 mins.

Narrative, and shifting identities, are themes that run through Medem’s films which, along with his striking visual style, have contributed to him being seen as an arthouse auteur. Indeed, it is tempting to go the whole auteur hog and use biographical details of Medem’s life to try and make sense of his films. Although he is a Basque filmmaker he had not made films specifically about the region until his most recent film the documentary La Pelota vasca. La piel contra la piedra (Basque Pelota. Skin Against Stone, Spain, 2003). His films have, however, have dealt with the Civil War (eg Vacas, (Cows),1991) so it is worth noting that his father was German; a particularly important nationality in Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998). But as our perspective on narrative we shall focus on the postmodern narrative of the film.

Postmodern films, amongst a plethora of other things, highlight their own existence as a medium, not in the modernist (or Brechtian) purpose of alienating audiences from the text, as in Vivre sa Vie, but in order to question the notion that anything can have definitive meaning. The title sequence of Sex and Lucia (in Spanish the title, Lucia y El Sexo, draws attention to the character before the libido), appears as if it is being typed – using traditional typewriter font – on a word processor, and a central character is a novelist, the fabricated nature of the film is immediately emphasised.

In mainstream cinema we expect the narrative world (diegesis) presented to be logical, in its own terms. The cause-effect chain of narrative is crucial in creating a convincing canvas on which events are acted out. In Sex and Lucia it soon becomes clear (?!) that the events we are seeing may be a fabrication – a dramatisation of Lorenzo’s novel. Or, it could be that Lorenzo is writing a novel based on his experiences, which we are shown in flashback. In addition, of course, we are aware that we are watching a fictional film peopled by characters. Whether the film is simply an example of postmodern frippery or a profound statement about the human condition (or somewhere in between) is for the audience to decide:

Medem may have disrobed most of the cast, leaving their bodies exposed, but the plot remains as guarded as a virgin with a chastity belt. That’s why Sex and Lucía is so alluring. (Marta Barber Miami Herald, Friday, August 9, 2002 –


“Sex and Lucia” is a beautifully made piece of unwatchable drivel. (Ian Waldron-Mantgani, accessed, October 2003)

Those who are unconvinced by the contrivance of narrative can, at least, enjoy the craftsmanship of the filmmaking and the performances of the cast. In addition pleasure can be gained from the film’s use of the  symbolic code:

•    The moon (the daughter is called Luna), representing female sexuality, is graphically matched (via editing) with a light (Lucia) and a pregnancy test
•    The phallic lighthouse is juxtaposed with a hole that both Lucia and Carlos/Antonio fall into (Lorenzo starts the film by telling Lucia he’s ‘in a hole’); this hole is also at the end of Lorenzo’s story where it takes us back to the middle of the narrative
•    Lucia’s orgasm is followed by Elena giving birth

The postmodern aesthetic is also present in the film’s form as Medem explains:

the movie was shot using CineAlta Hi-Definition 24p. It was incredible. This was the third movie in the world using this format. Since Lucia was escaping from a tragedy, she escapes that beautiful island that she steps on. And suddenly those characters have the right to do with that island whatever they want; for example, with the light. Also, when I went to the island with the camera, I forced the light. This overexposed light that almost blinds you, it’s like the characters erasing themselves and starting from zero, so they can start again. That’s the idea I had when I was shooting with my small camera when I first went to the island…

Every story, in a sense, is a search. You’re searching for the reason for that story to exist. There’s always a destiny. (, accessed October 2003)

Although the film claims, at its conclusion, that stories can change halfway, this obviously isn’t the case with film. The elusiveness of the narrative virtually requires a second viewing but it may remain an enigma, or a chimera according to taste, even after close study.

Touch of Evil (US, 1958)

Welles' dominating mise en scene

Welles' dominating mise en scene

As director of Sight & Sound’s perennial ‘greatest movie of all time’, Citizen Kane, Welles is guaranteed a place in the pantheon of great directors. That film was to prove a millstone around his neck and he may never have fulfilled his promise. However, despite this, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest directors. Kane is a most audacious debut film, made by an enfant terrible (aged 25) famous for his Mercury Theatre plays and his radio version of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds that convinced some Americans that Martians had landed. However, his satirical edge brought him against newspaper proprietor William Randolph Hearst. Kane was buried by Hearst’s newspapers’ vitriol, though who is to say if it would have been a box office success any way?

Welles’ follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), was butchered by the studio, particularly evident in the banality of the ending. However, as Victor Perkins says the film remains:

‘one of cinema’s glories – an incisive, moving generous and thrillingly accomplished work’. (Perkins, 1999, p. 7)

Three other movies as director followed: Journey Into Fear (1942, uncredited), The Stranger (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948):

‘The critics, if not the public… gave The Lady from Shanghai a good reception, but the public trailed far behind. This time, the case of Orson Welles was decided. Hollywood had had enough of a genius who in seven years’ time had cost it million of dollars.’ (Bazin, 1978, p. 94-5)

Before leaving Hollywood, Welles made a very cheap production of Macbeth (1948 ) and then embarked on a ten year exile in Europe where he peddled his acting talent to raise money for his films.

From the opening 190 second shot we know Welles is a master of cinema. His Expressionist visual style, evident in Kane (which was the first Hollywood film to shoot ceilings) places the camera in unusual positions and his use of deep focus distorts the space and so characters lurch frighteningly toward the camera or diminish rapidly as they move away. Welles’ Expressonist mise en scene is evident throughout his oeuvre and is ideal for the genre of film noir.

In 1998 Walter Murch supervised the re-editing of the film based upon Welles’ memo written in response to Universal Pictures barring him from post-production. The most obvious change is the opening shot shorn of credits and Mancini’s score. Think of the difficulties involved in choreographing so many events live for the camera.

Andre Bazin (1978 ) Orson Welles: A Critical View (Acrobat)
VF Perkins (1972) Film as Film (Pelican)