Gattaca (US, 1997)

Know your station

This is one of my favourite SF films. It’s set in the future where a gene test determines your future at birth; those with imperfections are ‘in-valids’, who will spend their lives in ‘lowly’ jobs, whereas the ‘perfect’, which can be arranged via pre-natal screening, form the elite. A little bit like 21st century UK, then, without the tests. If your family can afford to send you to certain schools then you have a good chance of joining the elite and those of your class in power, Cameron and his cronies at present, will ensure that the taxation system favours your ilk. I may exaggerate but not too much.

Ethan Hawke plays an ‘in-valid’ who takes on the identity of a ‘valid’, a brilliant Jude Law, who’s crippled. He then can take part in the space programme despite being less than perfect. However a murder investigation, led by his estranged brother, threatens to reveal Vincent Freeman’s identity. Like many dystopias, such as Huxley’s novel Brave New World, class is the key determinant. SF is an excellent genre for investigating scenarios of the future based upon current trends; in this case genetic engineering.

Scripted and directed by Andrew Niccol, who also wrote the brilliant The Truman Show (US, 1998), Gattaca interrogates ideas of what it means to be human within a gripping thriller structure. In addition, the future envisaged takes its cue from Blade Runner (US, 1982) in realising that retro, in this case the cars and the policemen’s garb, is more convincing than imagined futuristic design. The film looks great and I particularly liked the climactic scene that cross-cuts between Law’s Eugene and Freeman.

The Inbetweeners (UK, 2012)

Stretching out onto the big screen

There is a history of transferring British TV successes onto the big screen only to find they lose the quality that made them popular in the first place. There is a real challenge in turning a 23-minute per episode sitcom into a hour and a half feature. Clearly the box office suggests that The Inbetweeners in the cinema was a massive success, it grossed over £41m, but the appreciation rating on imdb tells a different story: 8.6 plays 6.9. This was the lads’ swansong after all, so there was little point in being snobby and not going to the cinema even though you knew it couldn’t be as good as the brilliant series.

There’s not a lot to say: one episode is stretched into a holiday on Crete and the script manages to retread all the tropes we expect, Simon getting naked for example. The success of the series was based around, like most sitcom, what is the most ridiculous situation can we get the protagonists into? However, the original ‘had a heart’; even the obnoxious Jay was shown to be vulnerable. That quality is in the movie too. So, overall, a terrific success story for both British TV and cinema.

Xala (Senegal, 1975)

As usual, it takes a woman to talk sense

Sembene Ousmane was a remarkable filmmaker, he was responsible for the first black African film, Borom Saret (Senegal, 1963) and concluded his career with the marvellous Moolaadé (Senegal-Fr-Burkino Faso-Cameroon-Morocco-Tunisia, 2004). Xala, like Deep End, is a film I’d read about but never seen and I have to confess was slightly disappointed. Not that it isn’t an excellent film, it’s satire on post-colonial Senegal still hits the mark, but the often-wooden acting and stilted camerwork detract from the narrative. I can only imagine, judging by the director’s other work, that the direction was a result of financial constraints.

The film focuses on self-important businessmen who have simply replaced their colonialist masters after independence. They are corrupt and have western tastes, the main character El Hadji professes only to drink Evian water (see above). In contrast his daughter, framed and colour coordinated, in the above scene, with a map of Africa, speaks Wolof and she is ashamed of her father. Part of that shame is due to his habit of taking wives, he marries his third in the film; one patriarchal African tradition he is happy to follow. The women, as in Moolaadé, are shown to be extremely strong characters, much more in tune with the realities of the world than the self-aggrandising men though they are, ultimately, powerless.

It is a political film that makes its points through comedy. El Hadji is cursed, the xala, and becomes impotent and so can’t ‘service’ his young third wife. He thus goes to a witch doctor to be cured but, when his cheque bounces, the ‘marabout’ simply reinserts the curse. Sembene, on whose novel the film’s based, is suggesting that in becoming western the nation’s rulers are emasculated.

The location shooting offers some extraordinary shots, particularly of the group of beggars who eventually shame El Hadji in the finale; and the music, by Samba Diabarra Samb, is excellent. It is a shame that African film remains a rarity on British screens despite the plethora of platforms for distribution now available.

The Hunger Games (US, 2012)

Interesting dystopia

The Hunger Games is a box office phenomenon: it had the highest non-sequel opening weekend ($151m), and this was outside peak season, and is independently produced by Lionsgate. Like the Twilight series (2008-12) an indie company has hit upon a franchise that Hollywood would die for. Summit Entertainment, which produced Twilight, is now owned by Lionsgate. However, these are certainly not independent films in their production values or their sensibility. We expect something outside the mainstream from the independents.

The Hunger Games had a lot of potential in offering an acerbic view of the vacuity of celebrity culture, in its representation of the inhabitants of the capital, and Stanley Tucci’s turn as the creepy chat show host Caesar Flickerman is spot on. In addition, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch of the imagination to consider the inhabitants of the capital as the bourgeoisie living off the sweat of the workers in the districts. These points lurk too far in the background.

More damagingly (in the sense that it would have been a more interesting picture) is the desire for a 12A certificate (some footage was cut to gain this family-friendly certificate) has eradicated any visceral representation of the violence. The result of this is that we never get a real sense of the viciousness involved in survival. In addition, the morality of ‘kill or be killed’ is skipped over; for example, the heroine Everdeen never has to face the dilemma of the necessity of killing her friend, Rue. Maybe I’m being over-picky, after all the source material is a teen novel.

Everdeen is played by the sensational Jennifer Lawrence who made such an impact in Winter’s Bone. She’s a charismatic actor with a face that seems to change depending upon what angle it’s being filmed from. She carries the film beautifully. Other pluses are Brian Baker’s set design and the costumes are also terrific. However I found Gary Ross’ direction a real distraction, particular in the early part of the narrative where he mimicked the whip-pans and shaky montages that accompany many ‘reality TV’ programmes. While the hunger games are such a programme it’s not necessary to copy their style. The shaky frame obscured much in the mise en scene, which was a pity because the settings were superbly done.

I prefer the similarly themed Battale Royale (Japan, 2000) and Series 7: The Contenders (US, 2001).

Catfish (US, 2010)

Facebook romance

This documentary, that follows the Facebook relationship between a New York photographer and a woman in rural Michigan, starts slowly, as there seems little point in making the film, but ultimately nails a key point about the Facebook era. Like Capturing the Friedmans (US, 2003), the documentarists seem to stumble upon something significant; Andrew Jarecki, who made the Friedmans, is credited as a producer of Catfish.

Shelley Turkle, in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, states that ‘People talk about digital life as the “place for hope,” the place where something new will come to them.’ Without spoiling the film, Catfish finds itself investigating the way some people use, in this case Facebook, as a way of escaping their own lives.

Shot on a variety of devices, themselves part of the wired world we live in, of varying quality, Catfish has the look of a home movie, even the sound is wayward, that befits its subject. The two filmmakers, Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman , show themselves to be extremely sensitive young men, as does Nev, Ariel’s brother, the photographer, in how they handle what transpires. The subject of the revelation (you see I’m trying very hard not to spoil) is treated with a great deal of dignity and sympathy.

Headhunters (Hodejegerne, Norway-Ger, 2011)

‘What do I do with this?’

This is the second time I’ve been to a multiplex to see a subtitled movie this year; hats off to Showcase again. And there’s absolutely no reason why this film shouldn’t play to a mass audience as it barrels along at a fantastic pace, including a gruesome shit scene and a hilarious ‘dogged impaled on a tractor’ moment. Of course, many let the writing at the bottom of the screen put them off.

The distributors hope that the relative popularity of Scandinavian fiction on British television, such as The Killing and Borgen, will stimulate demand in cinemas for similar fare. It opened with a reasonable £500k at the box office, but the crunch will be the midweek figures as the ‘subtitled’ viewing audiences are less likely to show at multiplexes at the weekend.

I can thoroughly recommend Headhunters as long as you don’t mind wildly implausible plot points. As I said, the film’s pace is such that they really don’t matter. Beautifully shot, there’s some stunning locations, and well acted; let’s hope this heralds a more adventurous UK audience. Don’t worry, unlike the dog, the subtitles won’t bite!

Son of Babylon (Iraq-UK-Fra-NL-Palestine-UAE-Egypt, 2009)

On the road to nowhere

This is a devastating film following the search, by grandmother and grandson, for the boy’s father who’s been missing for over 10 years in Iraq. It’s set in the weeks after the fall of Saddam, in 2003, when the country was recovering from war but before the sectarian violence flared. It’s a major achievement, by director Mohamed Al-Daradji, to actually get this film made; that it’s a heartrending and dramatically satisfying film as well, is a testament to his skill.

It may be ironic to state that Iraq is shown to be ‘god-forsaken’, in a country where religion is so obviously important, but that’s the impression I got. The protagonists travel hundreds of miles in their search and we see a country littered with burnt out cars and bombed out buildings. Bewilderment competes with desperation as the default mood of the populace, with American troops shown only as a disruptive backdrop; less liberators than an impediment.

Al-Daradji uses non actors, in the tradition of neo realism, but whereas in the original films an insignificant event drives the action (the theft of a bike for instance) here it’s a missing relative. However, it’s soon clear that missing relatives are ‘ten-a-penny’ and this traumatic situation is commonplace in Iraq. A postscript states over a million of people have gone missing over the past 40 years; since Saddam Hussein took power.

As a slice of life of Iraq just after the war this is unbeatable. See here for details on the films making.

Dead Man’s Shoes (UK, 2004)

Psycho to go

What happens when you cross a revenge movie with British social realism? In this case you get a not entirely successful, but certainly interesting, film. Co-writer, with star Paddy Considine, and director Shane Meadows is renowned for his slices of working class life on estates, his handheld camerawork and ensemble acting lift a lid on an under-represented class in cinema. His This Is England (2006) is a particularly successful example.

On the face of it mixing a genre movie with the aesthetics of realism seems a great idea and I don’t think it ‘fails’ because of the execution. The bunch of slightly deranged, and vulnerable, characters are typical Meadows and are convincingly portrayed. And Paddy Considine is ‘as standard’ as a brittle and unpredictable character, at once warm and threatening. He returns to his home town, looking beautiful in the hills of Derbyshire, seeking revenge for the treatment of his mentally challenged younger brother.

Maybe it doesn’t quite work because genre and realism can’t gel. The former relies upon verisimilitude, the rules of the genre, to convince its audience, whilst the latter states this is a ‘slice of life’. By their nature, genres aren’t ‘slices of life’. However, that should not be an impediment to watching this well-made and ground-breaking film.

Deep End (West Germany-UK, 1970)

Not exactly swinging

Deep End is one of those rare treats for an ageing cinephile, a never-seen but much-mentioned movie suddenly available to view. It has been mired in rights issues and needed reconstructing for its re-release last year (see here for more details). And it’s pleasing to report that the film does not disappoint.

Made in the same year as Performance, both films share a cynical view of the post-swinging ’60s era; though Deep End lacks the others pretension. Set in a seedy public baths, the film focuses on 15 year-old Mike’s growing infatuation with the slightly older Susan (Jane Asher terrific in both looks and acting). She is a not unkindly tease, however her affect on his hormones is quite catastrophic.

Like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (UK, 1965) this casts the effects of ‘sexual liberation’ as horror, though not in such an obvious way as the earlier film. The Polish sensibility, Deep End‘s writer-director was Jerzy Skolimowski a friend of Polanski’s, seems to have been ideal to offer such a skewed vision of Swinging London. Most of the film is set in the seedy baths (actually shot in West Germany) that take on an increasingly surreal look as the putrid greens start to be replaced (by a painter) with blood-red.

Another key setting is a 15-minute sequence shot in Soho, then the absolute epiphany of seedy sexuality; this is accompanied throughout by Can’s Mother Sky, giving a psychedelic edge to the proceedings. This mix of realism, the location shooting and narrative where little happens, with the surreal, at one point a religious group pops up proselytising against sex, helps set the mood for the brilliant finale.

The realism is also evident in some of the scenes that are clearly improvised; such as when the protagonists play with famous ‘pregnant man’ public information poster. Other elements that seem surreal now, such as the teacher molesting his female teen charges on a visit to the baths, may actually have been more real then! Similarly, the scene in the porn cinema where a policeman has to remove Mike for molesting Susan, who’s with her boyfriend.

So, a ‘lost’ ‘classic’ ‘found’.

Tabloid (US, 2010)

Blast from the past!

Errol Morris makes, what  Bill Nichols calls, ‘participatory documentaries’ where talking head interviews offer a variety of, often contradictory, viewpoints on events. Most famously, with The Thin Blue Line (US, 1988), this led to a man on death row being released as the real murderer, apparently inadvertently ‘fessed up’ whilst being interviewed. The subject of this documentary is nowhere near as serious, the American beauty queen who allegedly kidnapped her Mormon fiance in London and took him to Devon for sex. Pure tabloid fodder, in other words.

I don’t remember the case, from 1977, as tabloids didn’t reside where I lived. However this is an amusing recreation from the reporters involved and, mostly, Joyce McKinney herself. Morris’ brilliance is simply allowing the participants to talk, we occasionally hear him interjecting from behind the camera; we do get a sense of how unhinged McKinney is/was, but it’s more sympathetic than condemnatory.

It’s a reminder, maybe, of a more benign tabloid environment where phone hacking wasn’t ‘as standard’. However, I did feel that maybe Morris would be better looking at the neurosis that Mormonism seems to create; now that is a serious subject.