Saturday, 21 April 2012

Donuts and nice dresses: DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

SHOCK TREATMENT: Violet and friends despair at another case of the uncouth.

Whit Stillman’s latest film, Damsels in Distress, comes knowingly close to being just another American college movie, with Stillman introducing it at the Bradford International Film Festival as a “campus comedy”. Straight away we’re introduced to some of the usual college stereotypes: the jock, the barbie, the dufus… (“plural: dufi?”) as newcomer Lily is identified by Violet, Heather and Rose as in desperate need of their help if she is to survive. But it’s not the usual makeover we’ve come to expect since Violet and her group carry a much nobler cause: to reduce the number of on-campus suicides and help everyone realise their full potential – “even if they don’t have much.”

So when the girls aren’t prescribing their peers with free donuts and therapeutic tap-dancing at the on-campus Suicide Prevention Centre (“With suicide, prevention is actually ten tenths the cure…”), they’re braving frat house parties in search of souls in need of saving. Snobby, patronising, and often as clueless as the goofs they set out to help, we fall in love with Violet and her impeccably dressed Mother Theresas for their sincerity. Despite their Stepford Wives poise, they’re human too, and as the messy love triangles ensue Stillman finds heart and depth in the objects of his satire as they outgrow their campus comedy moulds.

Stillman’s script is dappled with some excellent one-liners, and he should be applauded for providing cinema with a new handful of great female comedy roles. In amongst all that superficiality there are good comic performances, but all inevitably end up playing support to Greta Gerwig’s excellent turn as Violet. Emerging from a back catalogue of mumblecore movies with enough integrity to spoof the goofs she made her name playing, Gerwig continues in her rise as cinema’s queen of quirk. Speaking always with a dazed and deadpan casualness, her Violet dispenses her own oddball brand of self-help while looking beautiful in her bows and just a tad unwieldy in her tap shoes. (As a filmmaker to which Stillman has been widely compared, it’ll be interesting to see what Woody Allen has done with Gerwig in To Rome With Love, out later this year – though the trailer looks typically bland.)

In aesthetic, too, Damsels is tooth-rottingly sweet, the girls and boys looking just delightful in their preppy clothes while light dazzles from every well-conditioned lock of hair and perfectly-flossed smile. It’s a lot of fun, but I still want to believe that this was the sugar-coating of a much bitterer pill – I’m not so sure. For all its fizzy satire and oddball characterisation, Damsels sees Stillman reinstate innocence and conservative values at the centre of the college campus flick (although one instance of bum sex does manage to sneak under the radar). This popcorn, I felt, needed a touch more salt.

But no matter. Damsels revels in its own simplification of life, dissolving its love triangles and break-up plots into a sun-drenched musical encore just in time for the (very funny) end credits. Where it fails in breaking any new ground, Damsels’ intoxicating blend of depression-curing soap, new dance crazes, and preppy fashion is enough to infect even the most hardened graduate with its optimism.

Damsels in Distress gets 4 stars (but with extra icing).

Prevention - "ten tenths the cure…"

Sunday, 6 November 2011

25th Leeds International Film Festival: FUERTEVENTURA

We meet Jesper, a young lone traveller, as he arrives from Sweden in the Canary Islands for a week of sun, sand, surfing, and sex. The first part of the film has plenty of all four, and from the start writer-director Mattias Sandtröm and writer-producer Ivica Zubak show their deftness for building a story in images, coolly and sleekly arranged.

But in the quiet moments, certain aspects of the soundtrack (the vibration of a swimming pool generator, the whir of a hotel fan) are foregrounded to great effect, peeling away at the façade of apparent normality to an unexplained psychological pain below. Some of the film's frames flicker too, and the sun flashes wildly, while the real or imagined barman (a character who might remind us of The Shining's wisdom-issuing bartender) and his enigmatic talk of dream and memory confuse Jesper (and us) more.

But Fuerteventura isn't trudgingly melancholic. Jesper meets Maite, the hotel housekeeper. She speaks no English (or Swedish) and he speaks no Spanish, and there are charming and touching scenes that follow, but from here too the film accelerates its study of confusion, miscommunication, and an attempt to decipher truth from dream ensues as, for Jesper, Maite strongly resembles someone back at home, and a tragedy that he left Sweden to forget.

Essential to the film, though never taking centre-stage, is its setting (although Fuerteventurawas actually filmed in on neighbouring island Gran Canaria). A pulsating and hedonistic resort by night, hazy, sparse and rocky dream-scape during the day, Fuerteventura is the dizzy place where an already confused Jesper must sift through dream and memory.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Iron Lady

Just a few hours after watching The Devil Wears Prada (for maybe the fifth time), I happened to notice this, a newly-released teaser for Meryl Streep's next film...

As the clip suggests, The Iron Lady is a horror about a child-catcher, (Streep) who dons a latex face and puts on an unintelligible posh English voice in order to attend to avoid detection. The film is said to draw inspiration from Roald Dahl's classic book The Witches.

It is the latest in a now massive genre of British cinema about British people who cannot speak very good, the most recent example of which was last year's The King's Speech, but whose roots it has been suggested lie in any film starring Hugh G-G-Grant. The Iron Lady looks set to be Meryl Streep's biggest commercial success since 2008's gritty kitchen sink drama Mamma Mia! in which she played an embarrassing, dress-young single mum who does not know who the father of her child is and who doesn't give a shit, discarding any sense of responsibility to her children by getting pissed most days and singing ABBA. The film was loosely based on the Channel 4 series Shameless, a documentary about what it's like to live anywhere north of Derby.

The Iron Lady will also star the farmer from Babe as well as that actor who often plays grey-suited political advisors in these sorts of films, both playing grey-suited political advisors.

The film was due to be released later on this year, but Fox have brought the release date forward to Monday to give its employees at the News of the World something to do next week during their first week off work.

Meryl Streep in role as Margaret Thatcher

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Go! Team live @ Sala Wah Wah, Valencia

When it's not hosting international bands and big Spanish acts (e.g. El Guincho, a Spanish Animal Collective, played a short but very sweet set there back in February), Sala Wah Wah in the ugly prefab Blasco Ibañez district of Valencia puts on free gigs. (Entry is on the condition that you buy drink, and the elderly doorman, who watches you from the door to make sure you go straight to the bar, gets tetchy if you're not on your second within 10 minutes...) The first time I was there back in October, a drag-act was playing to a bewilderingly enthusiastic crowd of rockers. My intrigue faltered when it just turned out to be band of ugly women in catsuits, and the crowd probably just a group of perverted truck-drivers from Eastern Europe...

Anyway, thanks to a recent string of brilliant gigs, Wah Wah is my new favourite live music venue in Valencia. Last week The Go! Team were there playing their new album, Rolling Blackouts. Showcasing the (excellent) album almost whole alongside older tracks, the six of them powered through a dizzying set of garage rock (Rolling Blackouts), old school hip hop (Grip Like A Vice), 60s-inspired pop (Ready To Go Steady), country (Yosemite's Theme) and good ol' fashioned electro-indie (Huddle Formation), all dressed up the Go! Team way with blaxploitation soundtrack samples (T.O.R.N.A.D.O) and playground chants (the Running Range), and those keyboard sound effects you used to mess around with in school music lessons.

Despite the band's size, the eclecticism of their songs means they juggle instruments (which include the 2 drum kits) between them, and what sounds inventive on the album becomes impressive to watch live. Leading the room in audience-participations which would fall flat in the hands of most front-men, when she's not aerobic-dancing the aptly-named Ninja charms the crowd with her south London phrasebook Spanish and has stage presence enough for the whole band. The band's Asian contingent (Tsuchida and Fukami-Taylor) chip in to provide very different vocals on Secretary Song and Ready To Go Steady, and both tracks still manage to sound like summer in a dark, beery venue thanks to bright melodies over shuffling Motown beats. Even Yosemite Theme, an almost lyric-less, mid-tempo track, works well live thanks to the band's musical talent and visual energy, even when Ninja has left the stage.

Later this week the Spanglish Crystal Fighters are in Sala Wah Wah ahead of a summer where most festivals have been falling over each other to get them onto their lineup... "I LOV LON-DON"

Monday, 28 March 2011

Dub Stepped...

(...or what to watch if you're in Valencia and you don't like dubbed films)

Spain, like the rest of the world, loves Hollywood. But what it doesn't love is reading subtitles – so they dub every film in a way that annoys most. I read about Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-nominated mumbling in True Grit, for example, but here I didn’t even get of a Wild West twang, let alone acting. And for some reason the female voices in films dubbed into Spanish are always breathy to the point of sounding pornographic, which gave Emma Watson an interesting twist in the last Harry Potter, but was off-putting when watching the Queen Mum in The Kings Speech...

Luckily Spain has its own busy film industry making films good enough to compete with the rest. So, as the old adage goes, if you can’t dub them, watch something else. Here’s what Spanish cinemas have come up with in the last few months...


Despite it’s title – a misspelling of beautiful – this film avoids all sentimentality and resists beautifying poverty. Peeling back the glossy Barcelona a lot of us already know, director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) introduces us to a patchwork of illegal migrant workers, corrupt policemen, and family breakdowns.

Uxbal (played by a Goya-winning, Oscar-nominated Javier Bardem) is the man living (on and off) with his children who he often can’t abide and with a wife who it;s difficult to love. Making money where he can, (and because a cosmopolitan city also means a city of marginalized immigrants) through him we meet Barcelona’s street vendors, drug-traffickers and sweatshop workers.

And although the family drama is powerful – thanks to some amazing and understated performances from Bardem, Maricel Álvarez as his wife, and Guillermo Estrella and Eduard Fernández as his children – the scenes that stick are the ones showing the two sides of the same city colliding: police chasing illegal immigrants through the busy touristic centre; the bodies of sweatshop workers washed up on the city’s palm-lined beach.

And when Gaudi’s monumental architecture does make an inevitable appearance, Iñárritu chooses his absurdly massive cathedral, El Templo de la Sagrada Familia, which looms over the city like a skeleton.

Biutiful is showing this month in the UK (both in independent cinemas and Vue). It might be hard to find, but it’s worth the search.

También La Lluvia (Even the Rain)

In 2000, while screenwriter Paul Laverty (Looking For Eric) was sketching out the idea for a film about Christopher Columbus and his conquering of the Americas, the Bolivian city of Cochabamba was the scene of another invasion, and where the water infrastructure was being sold off to foreign investors, the people were amassing and protesting in what became known as the Water Wars. Seeing strong parallels between the exploitation then (of natives by a foreign kingdom) and the exploitation now (of Bolivians by a foreign multi-national) he began to write También la Lluvia.

The parallels are drawn in such an inventive way. Instead of flicking between the past and present and then asking the audience to draw the obvious comparisons, Laverty brings the 15th century voyages into the present in the shape of a film crew (headed by Gael García Bernal and Luis Tosar, who both give good performances) who are in Bolivia making a film about Columbus when the clashes over water begin, and the two become intensely interwoven. An unrelenting thriller from the start, fact and fiction mix, but rather than simply confuse, the film-within-a-film layering makes us question even the motives for a foreign crew travelling abroad to make a film – brave, considering the filmmakers’ own position.

Chico & Rita

Also really worth a rummage around for is this animated gem, set in 1960s Cuba. A modern day fairytale, the story is simple in that it follows two star-crossed lovers – pianist Chico and singer Rita – brought together and torn apart again by their own success. But this simplicity makes room for Bebo Valdés’ music – which appears less as interludes and more as scenes integral to the film itself – and the animation – which is highly stylized and hypnotic. With the whole thing framed by flashes forward to present day Havana, where an ageing Chico is reminiscing over his time with Rita all those decades ago, it’s a slick production which, despite having been produced in four different countries, retains something of a small-studio feel. An amazing achievement.

Although you won’t need to put on a pair of unflattering black specs in as you enter the cinema, Chico & Rita is probably the most 3D animation in cinemas at the moment (Tangled, Gnomeo and Juliet, and Rango all considered). VUE and ODEON probably won’t give it a second look, but it’ll be in smaller picture houses – go and see it.

Pa Negre (Black Bread)

One film that probably won’t even be getting a showing outside of Spain is this Catalan film which stromed the Goyas (Spain’s Oscars) last month. Set in post-Civil War Spain, Pa Negre follows Andreu, a boy growing up on the war’s defeated side. As he tries to prove his father’s innocence of a brutal murder (in a spectacular opening set-piece) the film stops becoming merely a domestic-set coming-of-age drama and unfolds allegorically (like Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon) to become a portrait of a country moving from post-war ruin into dictatorial shackles.

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