Newbie Wednesday – Bunny and the Bull

Bunny and the Bull (2009, Paul King)
Starring Edward Hogg, Simon Farnaby, Veronice Echegui, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barrett, Noel Fielding

Note: This film has no planned release date for either theaters or DVD in the US. So, your best bet is to torrent the sucker.

“Come with us now on a journey through time and space”. If you are familiar with the immensely popular British series The Mighty Boosh then those are familiar words to you. The director of that series, Paul King, embarks on his feature film debut, bringing with him some familiar faces in supporting roles as well as the quirky aesthetic sensibilities of his television series.

The premise puts agoraphobic Stephen in the midst a year long hermit period. He is dealing with a trauma that occurred in Europe while he was on holiday with his friend Bunny. The two follow Stephen’s idea of fun by touring the various museums of the continent, but once Bunny takes the wheel things become a lot crazier. They meet waitress Eloisa who is looking for a way back home to Spain, and Bunny decides that once they arrive there, he is going to fight a bull.

The strongest thing this picture has going for it are the inventive visuals. King is definitely a peer to a director like Michel Gondry, in the way he intentionally lets the audience in on the hacked together set pieces. A fast food delivery bag becomes the setting for a flashback in a restaurant. A snow globe becomes the Swiss mountain chateau the men stayed in. A photograph of their train becomes a chain of photos, set against a landscape made of similar snapshots. The Mighty Boosh did the same, and it caused the universe to feel like a timeless fantasy-scape.

The plot on the other hand is not very strong. There’s no real depth to the two main characters, Stephen is a very stereotypical neurotic and Bunny is the typical crazy risk-taker. There’s not attempt to give us more about these characters or attempt to explain their motivations. The rest of the film is populated with set piece characters, such as the dog-milking Polish man, an innkeeper overly fond of her stuffed bear, and a former matador who uses a shopping cart with horns for practice. The film is very pretty to look at, and showcases the cleverness of the director aesthetically, I just hope he can find a richer level of writing for his next film.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Son of Rambow



Son of Rambow (2007, dir.Garth Jennings)
Starring Bil Milner, Will Poulter, Jessica Hynes, Jules Sitruk

I can remember watching Ghostbusters (not the first time, probably the tenth) when I was seven, and afterwards taking an old backpack, a paper towel cardboard tube, and attaching the two with a long piece of a yarn. A shoebox with another piece of yarn attached served as my “ghost trap”. I was always doing these things as a kid. Not having the latest action figures of my favorite comic book or Saturday morning cartoon characters, I would draw and cut out figurines on paper to play with. My desire to tell stories was stronger than the limitations of economy. This is the same love of stories, and being forced to go low tech that informs Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow.

Living in the 1980s, young Wil Proudfoot is the son of a woman involved in a Mennonite-like religious sect. As a result, he is not allowed to view films or television, but has a strong sense of creativity, drawing intricate worlds on the pages of his Bible. Lee is the son of an absent mother, growing up in a nursing home owned by his step-dad, and has an older brother who forces Lee to bootleg movies for him to sell on the street. Lee and Wil meet each other during an incident at school and Wil follows Lee home and glimpses his first film ever: First Blood (the first Rambo film). Wil is smitten with the film and immediately sets about storyboarding his own sequel, Son of Rambow, which he and Lee decide to film together.

Jennings is a well known music video director (he’s worked with Blur and Radiohead) and is best known in film for his adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That less-than-stellar flick bears some similarities in its quality to Son of Rambow. Rambow starts out with a crackling sense of excitement and possibility. Wil’s fantasy sequence right after seeing the film is brilliance; done in line drawings on paper and with the slashing speed lines that accompanies such artwork. There’s some great meta-textual commentary on filmmaking as well. As more kids find out about the production, and particularity with the involvement of hip French exchange student, Lee’s vision as director is co-oped. A brilliant scene where Wil is admitted into the upper upperclassmen’s lounge, which parodies the sort of upscaled celeb parties one would encounter in Hollywood (Coke and pop rocks are used to substitute alcohol and cocaine).

The flick is definitely worth a view, but wans near the end as it tries to make a “lesson” of the story. I would have enjoyed the sense of playfulness at the beginning to continue throughout. It was also wonderful to see Jessica Hynes, best known for co-starring with Simon Pegg in Spaced. If you get the chance, and were a kid who loved to imagine, check this one out.

DocuMondays – Young @ Heart



Young @ Heart (2007, dir.Stephen Walker)

The film opens with a jarring scene: a music video featuring a group of senior citizens performing The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”. The first reaction is one of amusement, it is “adorable” that these “little old people” are singing a punk rock song. However, once the lyrics sink in, the simple “aw, how cute” fades away and there is a profound expression that is created when these words come from those mouths:

“Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go….
Just put me in a wheelchair, get me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry before I go insane
I can’t control my fingers I can’t control my brain”

There’s something very honest and appropriate about a group of aged faces yelling out these lyrics. It seems more appropriate for them, than a group of young buck musicians. This is what the 2007 documentary Young @ Heart does so well, it balances the “cute, old people” moments with a rich and meaningful exploration of aging and confronting our mortality. 
The heart behind the Young @ Heart Chorus is Bob Cilman, a truly extraordinary person. Bob had dedicated hours of work to help organize and put on performances with the elderly, and he doesn’t coddle them. When his two featured performers have trouble with James Brown’s “I Feel Good”, Bob doesn’t speak to them in hushed tones. He shouts at them, he gets angry and frustrated, and eventually decides to just work on another song. It can appear mean, but Bob has such a high level of respect and such lofty expectations for this group he can’t help but be intense about it. And those expectations pay off a hundredfold.
The performers bring a lot of love into their performances, and the film captures a very tumultuous year for them. Long-time and dedicated performer Bob Salvini takes ill and eventually dies in the middle of the group’s performance season. A profound moment occurs when, during their concert, Fred Knittle performs Coldplay’s “Fix You”, a song he was meant to share with Salvini. The lyrics reflect the feelings of the the performers and Joe’s family who watch in the audience:
“And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you”

The documentary is deeply moving. In another scene the group performers for prisoners at a correctional facility. The way the camera shoots the faces of the chorus singing “Forever Young”, then cutting to the faces of criminals having to look down or cover their faces because of the tears welling in their eyes makes it impossible for the audience to not experience the same sense of compassion. Don’t discount this film as made for the old, or purely an attempt to exploit the elderly. This is a film made for the young to discover the depth and wisdom of their elders. This is one to be hunted down as soon as possible.

Fred Knittle performs Coldplay’s “Fix You”

The Young @ Heart Chorus performs “Forever Young”

Jolly Good Thursdays – Peeping Tom


Peeping Tom (1960, dir. Michael Powell)

Starring Karlheinz Bohm, Moira Shearer, Anne Massey

Released the same year as Hitchock’s Psycho, critically panned in Britain, pulled from theaters after an incredibly short run, and reviled by its director, Michael Powell. Peeping Tom sounds like it should have been forgotten. However, the film was years ahead of its time and is a masterful piece of commentary on voyeurism and the film audience. Infamous for containing the first nudity in British cinema (a nude model’s bare breasts are glimpsed for a couple seconds), but is about much more than seedy exploitation.

Mark Lewis is film studio cameraman by day, with side job taking nudie pictures for a corner newsagent. What no one knows is ,that from time to time, Mark takes to the streets with his camera and films the faces of women he murders. This is the result of a psychologist father who experimented on the compulsion people have to gaze, or be a peeping tom, on his own son. He fetishistically films young Mark, waking him up in the middle of the night by tossing a lizard in his bed or making him listen to the sounds of women being murdered. Now, with Mark alone in the world he has been lost in the damaged inflicted on him. He befriends a young boarder in his large mansion and fights his urges to make her gaze into the camera.

Peeping Tom  has some very clever camera play, especially during the murders where we see everything through Mark’s camera. And it does a very effective job of getting across the seediness of the world Mark inhabits. At the photo shoot over the newsagent’s shop, one model complains that Mark needs to hide her bruises from the camera, while another is frightened of people seeing her harelip. Powell creates exterior, physical deformities to emphasize the corruption infesting Mark. Are these women truly this scarred? Or it a manifestation of Mark’s psychosis?

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is, that despite Powell’s dislike of the picture, he weaves himself so personally into it. He plays young Mark’s father in old reel to reel footage, cast his own son as young Mark, and his own wife as the body of Mark’s lifeless mother in a funeral scene. In addition, the most elaborate murder is performed on actress Moira Shearer, famous as the prima ballerina in The Red Shoes. Powell and Shearer reportedly could not stand each other, he viewed her as an “airhead”. The film Mark is working on involves a director struggling with a red-headed flighty actress he is having to do retakes of constantly. In addition, Shearer plays the younger actress’ stand-in and is presented as an aging actress on her way out. A rather cruel, yet clever, way of Powell addressing his own problems in cinema.

Wild Card Tuesday – Hunger


Hunger (2008, dir. Steve McQueen)

Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham
The fight between Catholic and Protestant sides in Northern Ireland has devastated that country since the late 1960s. Each side has visited monolithic brutality on the other in of the greatest displays of community inflicting such cruelty on itself. But the cruelty that was the worst, was that of employees of the British empire on IRA members imprisoned in facilities across the country. Director Steve McQueen never give support for the terrorist actions of the IRA, but advocates that all prisoners, regardless of their crimes, deserve humane treatment.
The film’s focus is real life IRA soldier Bobby Sands (Fassbender). While the film doesn’t explicitly cover his activities with the IRA, he was no saint. He helped ferry weapons for the movement and was involved in the bombing of a furniture store in 1976. The film chooses to portray Sands as a figure unwilling to budge an inch for the brutal authority crashing down around his head. In this effort he has allowed himself to become dehumanized. Simply put, he has been caged and treated like an animal, so he will behave like one. Sands smears the walls of his cell with his own feces, allows the daily meals to rot and mold in a corner, and funnels his bed pan (synchronized with the other prisoners) out into the hallway. Is it vile? Yes. But there something innate within us that despise authority that wishes to break us, so it comes off as bizarrely admirable.
Bobby’s most memorable, and final, triumph came when he began a hunger strike in 1981 which took his life after several painful months of starvation. Michael Fassbender destroyed his body through malnutrition to take on the gaunt, sunken appearance of a Holocaust victim. He become the specter of death with additional help from an incredibly talented makeup department. His back is covered in open sores, he’s unable to urinate for the prison doctor’s physical, and he stains his sheets with black, acrid blood. The moments before Sands passes are truly powerful. The film moves into his consciousness as hallucinations of his younger self appear and his mind travels back to long distance race where he and both Prot and Catholic youths ran together, in fields of golden amber. Director McQueen doesn’t want you to take the IRA’s side, he wants you to realize how irrelevant any side is, and simply see a man dying.
The aesthetic choice made by McQueen are magnificent. For the first 30 minutes of the film there is little or no dialogue. Only 50 minutes in is there an actual conversation between two people for extended amount of time. Here Sands and a priest from his community debate the point of standing in defiance of authority. The priest tells Sands he must submit to the uniform being enforced on the prisoners and Sands simply won’t budge. Once again, neither side wins in the debate. They simply come to the conclusion that neither of them will change their ideas about it. Hunger is one of the best examples of director using the language of cinema to tell a visceral and moving story. There is no maudlin sentimentality, yet there is a deep emotional core. Not for those lacking a strong constitution, but one of the most amazing British films I’ve ever seen.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Naked


Naked (1993, dir. Mike Leigh)

Starring David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge, Gregg Crutwell, Claire Skinner
When viewing a Mike Leigh film you typically expect to see a slice of life portrayal of contemporary England. The focus will on the ins and outs of daily life for working class people. However, with this picture, Leigh creates an abrasive, violent, surreal universe which does adhere to the tenets of his standard films: there are no big illuminating answers or moments.
We first see Johnny (Thewlis), the film’s protagonist, in the middle of raping a woman in an alleyway. Hardly a way to endear us the character we’ll be following through the rest of the movie. The woman runs away saying she’s going to get brothers and they will beat Johnny to death. Johnny runs home, grabs a few things, steals a car and heads to London where he imposes himself on old flame Sophie (Sharp). Johnny gets involved with Sophie’s flatmate (Cartlidge), leaves in a huff and encounters a series of strange characters living and working in London. Johnny is paralleled by Jeremy (Crutwell) an utter misogynist and sociopath that gives Patrick Bateman a run for his money.
Director Leigh seems to be using Naked as sandbox in which to play with the audience’s expectations of their characters and the flow of plot in film. There is a palpable trajectory to the film for its first 30 minutes, and then suddenly it veers off into an episodic series of encounters between Johnny and other random characters. The introduction of Jeremy is intentionally confusing and appears to have no bearing on the overall plot of the film. Jeremy’s abusive exploits don’t feature any characters from Johnny’s portion of the film and seem as if they were cut in from another film. When the two plots cross into each other in the last 40 minutes of the film there is no explosive conflict or release of tension.
Naked could easily be seen as an extremely misogynistic film, but that would be selling short. Yes, women are brutalized numerous times throughout the film, Jeremy himself rapes about three women. However, I think Leigh is testing us to see what we will accept from characters in a film. What is the line they cross that makes them intolerable for us? In addition, every single characters is away from home: Johnny is on the run, Sophie is sub-leasing, her friend Sandra (Skinner) is off traveling through Zimbabwe. The moment the film finds its resolution is when all the characters have assembled in Sandra’s flat after she has returned home. It’s in this moment the genre of the film becomes rapid fire and even more absurd. There are elements of farce, romance, drama, and in the end it all falls apart. Johnny ends up even more broken than he had been at the start and where is going is now unknown and inevitably even further into the gutter.

Wild Card Tuesday – Fish Tank


Fish Tank (2009, dir. Andrea Arnold)

Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing
Mia is angry at everyone and everything. She headbutts a girl for simply mouthing off to her. She fights constantly with her mother. She’s considered an oddball by the boys. She’s been kicked out of school. This her last chance. Andrea Arnold’s portrait of a 15 year old girl growing up in contemporary Essex, England is an incredibly immersing film. I have to admit, I sat down to watch it less than enthused but found myself completely engrossed in the picture. Arnold’s emphasis on naturalism comes shining through and every frame of the film feels honest and real.
Mia’s world is changed when her mother brings Conner home. Conner is a handsome, charming man who treats Mia and her younger sister with kindness. The four make a nice little family, going out for a drive in the country one day, and Conner and Mia catching a fish together. But there is a palpable tension between Mia and Conner. The film constantly veers from her seeing him as a replacement father but also an object of sex. And for a girl in Mia’s situation, such a confusion would be understandable. There is no single strong male or female influence in the girl’s world, so when one comes along she clings to him for dear life.
There’s a recurring action of Mia’s that is glanced in the first moments of the film and repeated throughout. A ragged emaciated horse stands chained to large boulder in the middle of gravel covered field. Mia climbs a fence and uses a stone to smash at the chain and free the horse. With each attempt she find the action more and more futile. Another action which Mia repeats again and again is when she busts into an abandoned tenement flat and practice hip hop dancing. Music becomes a link between she and Conner and also a possible mode of escape. Where Mia and her family end up is a balanced mix of sadness and hope, and Conner’s role in it all is the most shocking.
The film is all about newcomer Katie Jarvis who, in her film debut, is absolutely amazing. Katie’s personal life is not too different from her character’s. She was a mother at 16 and was discovered while screaming at her boyfriend on the street. The same anger and fire in Mia is all brought to the film by Katie herself. Director Andrea Arnold is also a powerful force, making this world feel completely honest and knowing when and what to show the audience. An amazing achievement in contemporary British cinema.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Alice in Wonderland (1966)


Alice in Wonderland (1966, dir. Jonathan Miller)

Starring Anne-Marie Mallik, Peter Sellers, Leo McKern, Michael Redgrave, Peter Cook, Michael Hough, John Gielgud, Eric Idle
Lewis Caroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been adapted in many ways and forms since the advent of film. The majority are informed by the 1951 Disney animated feature and, because of that constant influence, seem bland. Not so with this BBC television adaptation. Jonathan Miller, a popular director and comedian who worked with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore extensively, brings us one of the most surreal and abstract versions of Wonderland. Here no one is dressed up like a white rabbit or caterpillar, instead they resemble the British aristocracy Carroll was mocking in his text.
The image above, which is the opening title of the film, evokes a very strong tone. Alice is something primal here, this is not the light-hearted English schoolgirl but a figure with a sinister air about her. Alice doesn’t speak for the first 20 minutes of the film, what we get is a whispering stream of consciousness. The most intriguing evolution of this conceit is how the whispering voice becomes the Cheshire Cat later in the film. It ends up highlighting pieces of dialogue from Carroll’s work that portray Alice as deep in contemplative thought about identity. This extends to her experiences eating and drinking items that distort her physical self, and as emphasized int this film, her psychological perception of herself and her environment.
It’s quite jolting to hear the silly dialogue, attributed originally to anthropomorphic figures, coming from the mouths of English nobility. That aesthetic choice emphasizes the absurdity of British aristocracy in Carroll’s time. The Caucus Race, which is Alice’s first major episode in Wonderland, occurs in an Anglican cathedral and involves stodgy nobles running around the pews and performing the sign of the cross. Every thing has an atmosphere of malaise, intensified by the wandering sitar music of Ravi Shankar. Alice sits at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, slumping down in her chair, washed over by the utter boredom and inanity of the dolts surrounding her.
This is by no means a children’s adaptation or one meant for mainstream audiences. This is a very masterful and crafted adult interpretation of classic story that operates on multiple levels of satire and philosophy.

Film 2010 #36 – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner


The Loneliness of the Long Distance (1962, dir. Tony Richardson)

Starring Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave
Film across the world was undergoing a transformation in the early 1960s. It began with the French New Wave movement of directors like Godard and Truffat and spread across Europe. Eventually, it hit England and corresponded with the coming of age of the first group of post-war children. The films produced in this period are referred to as the Angry Young Men, as they focused on teenagers and men in their 20s for whom the drudgery of blue collar life, that their parents so readily accepted, was considered a living death sentence.
This particular film focuses on the life of a Nottingham youth named Colin Smith (Courtenay). The picture opens with Colin being transported with a group of other juvenile delinquents to Ruxton Towers Reformatory. At the same time, the administration of the facility learns a nearby public school (in the States it would be a private school) wants to have their boys compete against Ruxton’s in a track and field event. The governor of the school (Redgrave) eyes Colin with the potential to win the long distance race after a tryout and begins loosening the restraints on the boy to ensure he will feel dedicated to Ruxton when the day of the race arrives.
Throughout the film we’re given glimpses of what led Colin down this path. At Ruxton, he is a humorless and dour young man, but in his life before he possesses a yearning to escape the factory life of Nottingham that kills his father. It becomes apparent that all Colin has been given in life are a series of expectations to live up to. His father’s former employer expects Colin will come work for them. Colin’s mother expects him to get a job once his father dies. The authorities figures in his town expect him to fall into a life of crime. The pressure of these expectations slowly grows inside Colin in both the flashbacks and during his time training for the race.
The most wonderful moments of the film come when the Governor allows Colin to run outside the gates of Ruxton. As soon as Colin is past the gates a soundtrack of period jazz music kicks in and the camera becomes very loose and documentarian in how it captures the runner. These moments of joy when Colin is by himself, simply running till he can’t breathe are played against his confrontations with fellow boys at the reformatory and regular sessions with the nervous and ineffective counselor. The loneliness mentioned in the title ends up playing both a joyous and bittersweet role. The film has two endings in effect, the one where Colin is “victorious” and then a sort of epilogue which causes us to question the cost of that victory.

Film 2009 #109 – In The Loop

In The Loop (2009)
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Starring James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Tom Hollander, Peter Capaldi

“War is unforeseeable.”

With this statement from an interview Simon Foster, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Development starts a hellstorm of media attention. He’s met with the ire of the Prime Minister enforcer, Malcolm Tucker and told he has to work damage control. Foster and his aide Toby journey to the United States and attempt to play the political game.

Armando Iannucci came to fame in the U.K. through his work writing and producing comedic series, in particular Knowing Me Knowing You and I’m Alan Partridge, both semi-improvised shows starring Steve Coogan. He was also the mind behind The Thick of It, a satirical look at the goings on in the Prime Minister’s office and what would become the foundation of In the Loop.

While American filmmakers feel a need to make their political films hard-hitting or iconic idolatry, Iannucci opts for the stance of pointing out the epic buffoonery that goes on behind the scenes of the most powerful in the world. The relationships in the film are all a series of adolescent one-upmanship. The methodology of going to war for many of the characters is simply to prove a rival wrong or usurp their position.

Iannucci and his actors are extremely comfortable with language and the dialogue is strengthened by that confidence. There are moments that feel like the dialogic equivalent of a blockbuster film’s shoot out and explosion sequences. This is also an incredibly subversive film that works to show incompetence at every level and a disconnect between those in power and the people at the bottom. One particular sequence involves Steve Coogan playing a character whose mother lives next door to a government building and is calling Simon Foster to complain that the wall between the properties is slowly crushing his mother’s greenhouse. Foster, at the U.N. and rushing to save face for a series of flubs constantly shrugs the man off.

If you are looking for some strong counter-programming to the thoughtless films of the summer, In the Loop provides an alternative that is equal parts entertaining and incredibly intelligent.