Monday, August 10, 2015

Phil on Film, Badlands, Twitter and Me

You might have noticed that things have been a bit quieter around here these days. When I started this blog many years ago I was very prolific in reviewing new releases but for various reasons that pace has slowed. I simply don’t have the free time to devote to this blog that I used to, and while I am still writing for a variety of magazines and websites, this place has unfortunately fallen by the wayside. I’m hoping to change that over the coming months and perhaps I’ll use Phil on Film for shorter reviews and articles rather than attempting to write a full consideration of everything I see, as I could do once upon a time. It would be nice to kickstart this blog and hopefully I’ll be able to get back into the groove soon ahead of the upcoming London Film Festival.

One reason why my free time has been at a premium is because I’ve added film programming to my part-time activities, hosting events as The Badlands Collective with my colleagues Ian Mantgani and Craig Williams. Putting on these screenings and promoting them takes an awful lot of work but we have had some great events this year – a sold-out 35mm screening of Topsy-Turvy with a Mike Leigh Q&A and the UK premiere of the extended cut of Once Upon a Time in America followed by an Elizabeth McGovern Q&A – and we have some very exciting events coming up soon.

On August 26th we are very proud to be showing two thrillingly unconventional and ambitious musicals at the lovely new Regent Street Cinema. In All That Jazz and One From the Heart two Oscar-winning directors put everything on the line as they experiment with the musical form; Bob Fosse turns the camera inward and explores his own personal failings with lacerating honesty and stunning artistry, while Francis Ford Coppola gambled his reputation, his career and his finances on a studio-bound love story – a gamble he ultimately lost. These films complement each other in a number of ways and as both films are too-rarely screened we’re thrilled to be projecting both from 35mm prints. You can find out more information and get tickets for these events here.

In September we are putting on our most ambitious event yet. To pay tribute to the legacy of Cannon Films – celebrated earlier this year in the documentary Electric Boogaloo – we have programmed three thematically linked double-bills at three cinemas throughout the month. On September 14th our season begins with a look at Cannon’s relationship with cult authors, and the Prince Charles Cinema is our location for the wryly humorous and insightful Barfly, written by Charles Bukowski, and the crazily underrated thriller 52 Pick-Up, which was adapted from his own novel by the great Elmore Leonard.

Then on September 20th we’re back at Regent Street to focus on the eclectic career of Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, who made one of the great action films of the era in 1985 with Runaway Train, a potentially straightforward genre film that grows into something greater and deeper with Oscar-nominated performances from Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, and incredible stuntwork. We’re following that with a real rarity: Konchalovsky’s 1987 drama Shy People, which won a Best Actress award at Cannes for Barbara Hershey and looked set to be an Oscar contender before its bungled distribution ensured it went largely unseen for years. As Roger Ebert wrote, “Of all of the great, lost films of recent years, Shy People must be the saddest case.” We’re so happy to be bringing this forgotten gem to a new audience, particularly when it has never even received a DVD release.

Finally, we’re focusing on Christopher Reeve in our third double-bill. Having publicly declared that he would never play Superman again after Superman III, Reeve was determined to do something that expanded his range and changed public perception of his work, but in order to get his passion project made at Cannon he was required to step into the blue tights one last time. As neither film would exist without the other, we’re presenting both Street Smart and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace at the Brixton Ritzy on September 27th. Street Smart is a hugely undervalued thriller, which boasts a revelatory performance from Morgan Freeman, while Superman IV is a fascinating look at how the first superhero franchise crashed and burned less than a decade after it had begun (and just two years before Tim Burton’s Batman changed the game again).

All of these films will be projected from original 35mm release prints and the chances of seeing some of them on the big screen again are very slim. We also have a few ideas to make each of these screenings memorable events in the true spirit of Cannon Films, so please book your tickets here to make sure you don't miss out.

One last thing. Some of you may have also noticed my absence from Twitter in recent weeks. I love Twitter for many reasons, not least the great people it has brought into my life, but I feel I need a break from it for now. I just don’t think the daily dose of cynicism, outrage and pandering is bringing me much happiness and I am conscious of the way checking my phone in every idle moment has become an automatic gesture. I’m using that time instead to read more, to walk around with my head up, and to focus on tasks in hand instead of checking my feed every five minutes. I am sure I’ll return to Twitter at some point, perhaps in a reduced capacity, but for now I’m finding its absence from my life surprisingly liberating.

That’s all for now, and I hope I’ll see some of you at our events soon. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Man Behind Man With a Movie Camera

Yelizaveta Svilova was busy organising footage in her office at a Moscow newsreel agency one afternoon when a colleague rushed over to her and said “Your director is jumping from the second floor window.” When she followed him outside she found her future collaborator and husband Dziga Vertov standing on the terrace, his brother Mikhail Kaufman standing below with a camera ready to capture whatever was about to happen. Vertov jumped and landed with a huge burst of laughter. When Svilova asked him what on earth he was doing, he replied, “I want to see life the way it is. When I jumped I was afraid, when I landed safely I was glad.” The trio later reconvened to study the footage that Kaufman had captured, and Svilova recalled this as a defining moment for her: “I realised when I looked at the material that it brought something new to film.”

Read the rest of my article on Mostly Film

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2015

At the height of summer, when cinemas are dominated by the noise of 3D blockbusters, Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival can feel like an escape route for filmgoers seeking something more sedate, rare and esoteric. Now in its 29th year, the festival gathers together an eclectic range of films from across the world, presented on both archive prints and new restorations, and introduces them to audiences who may never get another opportunity to see them. The large and detailed festival brochure handed out to attendees uses the term Il paradiso dei cinefili, the cinephiles’ heaven, and I found little in my time there to contradict this statement. Having said all of that, it felt a bit incongruous to don a pair of 3D glasses as I sat down for my first film after arriving in Bologna. It seems there’s no escaping stereoscopic gimmickry.

Read the rest of my article at Mostly Film

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sam Fuller's Forty Guns

Samuel Fuller knew the importance of a good start. “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamn garbage,” he once said, and his 1957 film Forty Guns commands the viewer’s attention before the opening credits have even rolled. Fuller fills the CinemaScope frame with a shot of a vast empty landscape, through which three weary men are travelling. They hear the horses before they see them, a distant rumbling catching their attention moments before a band of gunmen appears on the horizon, surrounding and passing this small carriage in a storm of hooves and dust. The men look behind them as the horses disappear into the distance, scarcely able to believe what they’ve just seen. Forty men on black horses led by a single woman on a white stallion. That woman is Barbara Stanwyck.

Read the rest of my article on Mostly Film

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Look of Silence

After making his monumental Holocaust documentary Shoah in 1985, Claude Lanzmann spent the rest of his career revisiting the same territory, sharing more of the stories that he collected while making that film and finding new angles on the horror. Joshua Oppenheimer has taken a similar approach to the issue of the anti-Communist massacres that took place in Indonesia in the 1960s. His 2012 film The Act of Killing was an extraordinary picture, in which those responsible for these murders were invited to share their stories and recreate their actions, an invitation they gleefully accepted. It was an audacious move that reaped powerful rewards, presenting us with an unforgettable portrait of evil, madness, denial and guilt.

Oppenheimer's latest film is called The Look of Silence, and instead of posing the questions himself, the director has given a man named Adi the opportunity to investigate his traumatic personal history. An optician and family man, Adi was born in 1968, two years after his elder brother Ramli was brutally murdered. Even if this event took place before his birth, it weighs heavily on Adi's shoulders, both through the knowledge that he was seen as a replacement for the dead son, and the fact that his 100 year-old parents – the mother still frank and sharp-witted, the father ailing in body and mind – never got over his death. Adi is quiet and impassive, but he proves to be a disarmingly effective interviewer as he confronts the men who lead the death squads a half-century earlier. “You ask much deeper questions than Joshua ever did,” one rattled veteran complains before telling Oppenheimer to stop filming.

Such fractious encounters are littered throughout a film that is more conventional and sober in its construction than The Act of Killing, but no less powerful for it. In fact, that silence is one of Oppenheimer's most potent weapons, as he lets the camera rest on the faces of his subjects while they size each other up. It's fascinating to watch the way these interviews unfold, with the killers freely discussing their role in the purge until they learn that Adi is asking these questions as the brother of a murdered man. Some of the men try to deflect responsibility and claim they were only following orders, some get angry and accuse him of unnecessarily opening old wounds, while another in a grimly amusing moment suggests “Can't we all just get along, like the military dictatorship taught us?” One Komando Aksi squad leader begins asking Adi where he lives and what his family name is when his realises that his brother was a victim, information that Adi refuses to divulge. The men responsible for the purge are still in power in Indonesia, a fact that emphasises just how courageous people like Adi are for daring to ask questions.

Many of the people Adi speaks to wonder if he is looking for revenge, but that's not the case. He is simply seeking some sense of understanding and closure, and he is even willing to offer forgiveness if those responsible for his brother's death show signs of remorse. As we have already seen in The Act of Killing, however, these men are more inclined to boast of their exploits than to regret them, and one piece of footage Oppenheimer frequently returns to shows two elderly death squad members, Inong and Amir, retracing their steps down to Snake River, where many murders were committed. They are happy to play-act and demonstrate how they dragged terrified victims through the woods and sliced off heads and penises, and they pose for photographs, smiling at the scene of their crimes. Amir even wrote a book telling his story, adorned with graphic illustrations “so our descendants will remember us.”

History is written by the victors, and the stories being passed down to the next generation in Indonesia are giving them a skewed sense of their nation's past. In a classroom we see Adi's son being told about the cruel behaviour of the communists and the heroic actions of the military that destroyed them, a perspective that Adi later tries to correct, and this is one reason why Oppenheimer's films are so vital. The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are attempts to fight back against propagandist rhetoric and engage with the past in a direct and honest manner, and taken together the two films represent a staggering achievement. I don't know if Joshua Oppenheimer will return to this story again or if he feels that his work here is now done, but one hopes his many brave collaborators – almost all of whom are credited here as 'Anonymous' – will succeed in their pursuit of truth, and will one day find peace.