Cultural Bulletin
Cultural Bulletin is a quarterly magazine that provides an international view of creative work. We look to film, music, design and art as signifiers of our cultural moment.
Posts tagged Film
In Review: The Workshop

Director: Laurent Cantet

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In a virtual landscape, a lone man climbs a summit, crossbow in hand. He aims at the sun and opens fire. Laurent Cantet’s opening scene to his latest film The Workshop is a video game played by Antoine, from his bedroom in La Ciotat, South of France.

Antoine has been selected to take part in a summer writing course in his hometown (a former fishing port) with a group of young locals, run by well-known author Olivia (Marina Fois). ‘The idea of the workshop is to write about your town,’ she tells them.

Everything seems rather idyllic and alluring as the group debate in the sun about what makes a brilliant narrative. They decide not to buy into American cliches. They are bright and thoughtful, but none more intriguing to Olivia than Antoine, who seems reticent and sceptical, pitching much darker themes and possibilities for their novel. As the group settle on the idea of a murder plot, tensions arise between them. Their races and religious backgrounds are brought forward and things become much more raw.

The film is set after the horrific 2015 Bataclan terrorist attack in Paris, which resulted in the death of 130 innocent people. There are Muslim participants in the workshop, and the debate is heated. ‘A Jihadi story now?’ One asks. ‘40% of those radicalised are white French converts.’ As the teens debate, we align with Olivia’s increasing intrigue and concern for Antoine. She defends him, stating that you don’t have to be a sociopath to write one but as she begins to look into his life, we realise she may not be so sure. Is this boy brilliant, dangerous, or just a struggling teenager trying to understand his purpose?

It doesn’t take long to begin to wonder when the thriller they are constructing together as a group will start to bleed into reality. What motivates people to choose their political and religious beliefs? What drives a person to kill? To choose which YouTube clips to watch or video games to play? Cantet’s dark and unsettling film catches us in the middle of a frightening conversation that may become all too real. He skilfully keeps us guessing, the true mark of any brilliant narrative. SC

Revisiting: Buena Vista Social Club

Director: Wim Wenders

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Screened as part of the ¡Viva! Festival from Home, Manchester.

Has there ever been more visible passion and joy for music than in Wim Wenders’ wonderfully spirited 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club?

Wenders follows the story of his friend, renowned American guitarist Ry Cooder, as he reunites a group of extremely talented Cuban musicians who go under the collective name Buena Vista Social Club. Through the documentary, it’s clear that Cooder is in awe of those he has reassembled - there are moments where he can't contain his delight at the music he hears.

The documentary centres around 4 performances from 1998 in Amsterdam and the Carnegie Hall in New York. Wenders cuts the performances with footage back in Cuba: the musicians jamming together in rehearsals, the streets of Havana, workers rolling cigars and creating lutes in a workshop. There’s a moment when one member of the band is walking down a busy street and starts singing - before you know it, others are following her and joining in. It makes for a delightful and authentic look at the origins of Cuban music - music of the heart and soul.

We begin by focusing on two members of the group: Cuban music legends Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo. We learn that Ferrer was an orphan from the age of 12 who dropped out of school and Portuondo is the daughter of a famous baseball player. Both are from very different upbringings, but when they perform the bolero Silencio together, with tears in their eyes, there’s only a deep respect for each other, their country and the power of their music.

From here, Wenders staggers the introduction of the other musicians, each one supremely suave and talented. Guitarist Company Segundo, for example, smokes cigars in his trademark Panama hat whilst telling us that, ‘As long as their is blood in my veins, I will always love women.’ We also catch him divulging his numerous cures for hangovers. He was 90 at the time. In one exquisitely uplifting scene, Rubén González Fontanills, a pianist, plays for young ballerinas and gymnasts as they practice together. They eventually crowd around his piano, smiling and absorbed.

One of the American musicians, who teamed up with the Cubans for the revival, uses the phrase ‘pure musical energy’. What a joyful and heartfelt energy it is. TS

 
 
In Review: Isle of Dogs

Director: Wes Anderson

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If Wes Anderson were to write a novel, it would likely be a palindrome. It's no secret that he has carved out a reputation for creating films that are painstakingly meticulous in their design, visually stunning in their symmetry and instantly recognisable for their zany, offbeat comedy. Also, it's now becoming the norm that the Hollywood elite queue up to be given even a whiff of dialogue or screen time in his latest projects. Just one click on any of his recent IMDb links and up pops a definitive who’s who of arthouse stars. His previous project, The Grand Budapest Hotel, boasted a staggering four Academy Award winners and twelve nominees.

His latest feature, Isle of Dogs, is no different. In fact, this time, Anderson really has outdone himself - surpassing anything he’s made before in terms of sheer scale and artistic vision. He's distinctively created the film using a mixture of 3D stop-motion and 2D hand-drawn animation. Again, the cast list is jaw-droppingly crammed with acting royalty. Here we get Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum as a pack of dogs who have been exiled from a near-future dystopian Japanese city: Megasaki. They've been lumped on Trash Island by the malicious Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), with the desire to halt a spread of dog viruses and eventually eradicate the canine community. Kobayashi is an ailurophile who - after exiting a sentō - reveals a tattoo on his back, hilariously giving away his feline leaning sentiments.

The narrative centres around Atari Kobayashi (nephew to the Mayor and voiced by Koyu Rankin) and his quest to find his pet Spots - who has also been banished to Trash Island. Anderson co-wrote the story with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura and they have created a warm-hearted ode to Japanese culture, art and cinema - all things that have clearly inspired their past creative endeavours (Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog being a particularly strong influence).

Although Anderson has used stop-motion before (Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009), the creative undertaking here seems on a new level. The animal puppets used in both films certainly bear a resemblance to each other: their facial features being expressive, able to convey meaning and humour, each of the animals having an individual personality. With the humans, however, there is a difference when comparing them to Fantastic Mr. Fox. Herethey have been created with a slightly translucent resin, causing a new, distinctive facial structure. This look adds to the glow and surprising warmth of the film considering we spend most of our time on a pile of discarded junk.

The film is a funny kind of funny. It does that thing when you're engaging in a particular type of stand-up comedy that’s impressive in how cleverly everything has been orchestrated but doesn't necessarily result in belly laughs - more smirks and knowing nods of appreciation. You find yourself whispering words like, ’clever’ and ’that was good, that was impressive’. There's also plenty in the way of political jabs and quips, most notably with a movement against the mayor being led by young exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig). During one of the many fights, one character deadpans: ’I can't get a clear shot. There are too many innocent civilians.’

There are two scenes in Isle of Dogs that make for pure satisfaction-cinema. We view both from above - Anderson giving us the eyes of the of that specific character for a few moments, allowing us to take in the movements from their point of view. First, we get a sushi chef preparing a meal that’s laced with poison. The second is a doctor performing a kidney transplant. These scenes showcase Anderson at his sublime best: the attention to detail, music and animation working in joyous harmony to create two highly enjoyable and utterly memorable moments.

Anderson is surely one of the most distinctive and innovative directors working today; even when he makes a film about dogs on an island of discarded, broken rubbish, it’s refined, uncontaminated and wonderfully put together. TS

In Review: You Were Never Really Here

Director: Lynne Ramsey

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Highly Recommended

Do you remember the scene with the lychee?

If you saw Lynne Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, then you’ll know the exact lychee in question. It’s a lychee that’s rather hard to forget. In fact, for all the horrors that play out in her adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s school-massacre based novel, this scene is the most grotesque. It’s a scene that stays with you because, the butchering of this innocent lychee aside, there is no violence.

In her latest feature, You Were Never Really Here (based on a short story by Jonathan Ames), Ramsey masterfully reasserts her ability to create horrific and damaging images in our mind without actually showing them. This time, the subject matter is just as dark as her previous film. We have Joe (Joaquin Phoenix): a hitman with a dark past who suffers from PTSD. When being hired for his latest job - to find and rescue an abducted Senator’s daughter from a paedophile ring - he is told that he was chosen because of his ability to be brutal.

Ramsey has said that she intended the story to be similar to that of Lazarus: ‘a guy that comes back to life.’ And it’s here that she focuses most of her attention throughout the slender 90 minute running time. She wrote the screenplay with Phoenix in mind and has also spoken about how, when he committed to the role, he was able to bring added authenticity to Joe. He apparently did away with latex gloves that Joe was originally going to wear and refrained from using gadgets - moves that have certainly paid off.

Phoenix is superb - he won a deserved Best Actor at Cannes for his work. His performance is remarkably physical and we spend a considerable amount of time looking at his body: he has beefed up, bearded up and is covered in scars from his past. Added to this, his ability to exhibit torment and anguish is disturbingly believable. It is reminiscent of his remarkable portrayal of Freddy Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and when you put these two performances next to each other, it’s hard to argue against him being one of the finest and most interesting actors of his generation.

It’s becoming a foregone conclusion that if Jonny Greenwood has created a soundtrack for a film, it will be discussed in the reviews that follow it. Is this because he is in one of the most critically acclaimed bands of all time? Or is it because he’s a genuinely talented film composer? It’s certainly the latter. For some of the film, Greenwood opts for harsh strings to turn up the sense of unease (see There Will Be Blood as another sublime example of this). He balances this with more up-tempo synth and drum sections that click in as Joe moves between the action - it works excellently in the context of a modern noir.

In the final act of the film, the story is told almost completely without dialogue, allowing Ramsey to build towards the climax and for the viewer to find meaning within the nuances of Phoenix's visceral performance. It’s a fresh and welcome antidote to the world of over-explained, conveyor belt thrillers. The film leaves you hoping that the trio behind the direction, acting and soundtrack will, at some point, recombine their exceptional talents and produce something as artfully crafted again. TS

 
 
Revisiting: The Seventh Seal
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As part of their Ingmar Bergman season, Home in Manchester included 3 screenings of the 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal.

The themes running through The Seventh Seal have been dissected, discussed and even disputed with enough column inches to fill the National Library of Sweden. Having said that, rewatching this visually striking and deeply philosophical classic projected in a cinema gives new life to the phrase ‘the gift that keeps on giving’.

Bergman presents us images that stand alone as some of the most recognised and symbolic in film history. Challenging Death to a game of chess, for whatever intrinsic reason, feels like it should be a ubiquitous symbol for any existential struggle; it’s an image that could yet be discovered hiding out in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, or carved next to Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse. 

Bergman’s inspiration was, however, found in a small church just north of Stockholm. Albertus Pictor’s painting, Death Playing Chess, was an instrumental starting point for Bergman’s script. He even included Albertus in the film: a squire discovers him painting dour images on a church wall. When challenged on the dark nature of his work, Albertus replies, ‘Why should I make people happy? I’m only painting things as they are.’ And this, of course, is what Bergman wants us to consider; he forces us to engage in the reality and finality of death.

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As distinctive and fresh as his work still looks, it’s also strikingly clear to whom Bergman owes a debt. His admiration of Shakespeare is something that he made no bones about and The Seventh Seal is full of nods to the Bard. Our protagonist, Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), could’ve walked straight off the set of Hamlet - his existential crisis and struggle swirling around a backdrop of death and hopelessness. The acting troupe provide more opportunities for us to muse about how cruelty and pain give no apparent consideration for well-meaning people. It’s also comforting to be reminded that, for an art house film with a reputation for seriousness - there’s a smattering of comedy, too.

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Most profoundly, though, Bergman used The Seventh Seal as a biblical allegory. Taking the title from the book of Revelation, and setting it during the Black Death was just the tip of his metaphorical iceberg. Throughout the story, we find ourselves constantly encountering signs of a man who was clearly infatuated with faith: an infant named Mikael (after the Archangel who defeated Satan), the act of confession and a formidable scene involving self-flagellation to name a few.

The film ends with an image that’s representative of the film in its entirety - the dance with Death. It’s another iconic moment from a film that, after more than 60 years, still stands up as a classic of twentieth-century cinema. TS

In Review: Annihilation

Director: Alex Garland

After his outstanding debut feature as a director (Ex Machina, 2014), Alex Garland’s latest project has been much anticipated by a section of film fans that sit excitedly in the centre of a Venn diagram labelled ‘horror’ on one side and ‘sci-fi’ on the other. His fresh commentary on the capabilities of AI had them rightly wondering where he would - or indeed could - go next. Would he be able to recreate such dark yet intellectual subject matter? Would he direct with the same bold, eccentric pizzazz?

On first viewing, the answer is yes. Garland’s straight-to-Netflix film, Annihilation, is a hypnotic, resplendent sci-fi that builds steadily with genuine intrigue. Garland has high expectations for his audience and it pays off; the engagement factor is heightened by his reluctance to give us blatantly, over-explained answers. Added to that, Natalie Portman seems completely at home in the role of a biologist who is sent, alongside a team of scientists with varying expertise, to examine a mysterious, expanding area with unknown origins. 

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer yet seems to have done that rarest of things: not only given a vivid visual life to the world created in the book but also embellish and enhance it. The presence of an unknown alien life form without clear intentions draws comparisons to Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Arrival. It also matches it when it comes to revealing the alien life form by never becoming silly or comical. On the contrary, when the film builds to its weird and wonderful climax, Garland’s fingerprints can be seen smeared all over it with his assured and distinctive visuals.

It’s a shame that UK viewers won’t be able to see this projected in cinemas, as much of the film is crying out for a big screen experience. After viewing, it feels almost like a happy surprise that Garland has repeated something that’s so enjoyable and worth engaging in. Perhaps, though, that’s underestimating his ability as a filmmaker and is now something we should expect. TS

Film, In ReviewTom SilverFilm
In Review: The Shape Of Water

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

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‘It’s taken me 25 years guys, give me a minute!’

Guillermo Del Toro had certainly earned the right to talk past the orchestral music during his Golden Globes speech when accepting the award of Best Director for his new film The Shape of Water. Back in 2006, when he made good on his promise of The Devil’s Backbone (2001) by creating the extraordinary modern fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, he was already being lauded as an exceptional talent. And when Del Toro talks of monsters, as he did so emotively that night, it’s hard not to get swept up in his deep love for the metaphorical power they can hold. It’s that same feeling that seeps from the edges of his new critic-pleasing, socially on-point The Shape of Water.

Like Pan’s Labyrinth, this is fairy tale for adults; the fable offers the magic and romanticism of Beauty and the Beast with an edge of brutality and gore that Del Toro often adds to his ever-bubbling cauldron of films. Here he takes us to post Cold War America ‘in a small city near the coast but far from everything else’ where Sally Hawkin’s Elisa works as a cleaner in a mysterious research facility. Elisa has been mute from birth but under her vulnerable exterior we get to know her as someone who is steely, resolute and erotic (be ready for naked-bath-masturbation within 2 minutes).

Things take a turn for Eliza when Colonel Richard Strickland (played with menace and savagery by Michael Shannon) brings a mysterious creature into the facility. Being 1962, America is frantically jostling for the number 1 World Super Power spot with Russia, and their hope is that by studying this amphibious creature, they will gain an advantage in the Space Race. Eliza soon stumbles across The Asset (played by Del Toro’s Monster-In-Chief, Doug Jones) and they begin to find comfort in each other through non-verbal communication and hard-boiled eggs.

The film hangs on the believability of the romance afoot. On the surface, it’s an Amazonian river god making love to a mute cleaner. And they’ve not known each other long. So do the outcasts make for a convincing couple? Well, yes and no. Sally Hawkins delivers a performance that is affecting and poignant yet has moments of subtle comedy - clearly influenced by Charlie Chaplin. For the first hour, it seems Del Toro has cast his spell over this most unlikely of love affairs. However, even for a whirlwind romance, things begin to move a tad too quickly. Before we know it, Eliza and her indignant posse of friends are plotting to free The Asset.

Frustratingly, for all the immersive magic Del Toro creates, the film is restrained by the surprisingly straightforward and predictable narrative. Also, at times, the secondary characters feel like they are there to ensure current cultural significance is achieved: a gay man struggling with acceptance; a black woman with a racist, white boss; a racist, white boss with a racist, white boss. 

This film has already been a huge critical success, with reviews and awards honouring work from a filmmaker who is willing to push cinematic boundaries. ‘For 25 years I have handcrafted very strange little tales made of motion, colour, light and shadow,’ Del Toro also said during his speech at the Hilton in California. It’s a wonderful type of cinema he is creating, and even if this film isn’t his best work, it’s certainly an enjoyable addition to a genre he is helping to define. Here’s to 25 more. TS

Film, In ReviewTom SilverFilm
In Review: Call Me By Your Name

Director: Luca Guadagnino

When André Aciman wrote the novel Call Me By Your Name in 2007, he didn’t have the medium of film to help show how a single glance or pause can lay the heart bare in a way that written prose can’t. ‘I couldn’t write silence,’ he said. And, after watching this adaptation, he stated that the film had captured the spirit of the novel in ways he could never have anticipated.

This heady, enthralling work from director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash), hangs on moments like these. We spend a summer ‘somewhere in Northern Italy’ with the Perlmans: a liberal American family who while away their days by swimming, cycling, reading and, in the case of 17 year old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), transcribing music. Every summer, Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of archaeology, invites a student to spend the summer with them. This year, the student is Armie Hammer’s Oliver: a tall, handsome and somewhat self-assured preppy American in his mid-twenties.

As the two young men spend more time together, they grow closer and eventually admit their feelings for one another. ‘Why are you telling me this?’ says Oliver as he deciphers Elio’s confession. ‘Because I wanted you to know,’ is the stark reply. And so, under the nose of Elio’s parents, their love affair begins. The power and emotion of the film are heightened because as we watch them, we know that eventually, Oliver will have to leave.

The acting is outstanding. The film hinges on the authenticity of the relationship between the two leads. Their characters’ contrasting experiences and personalities could easily halt the believability of their romance. That isn’t the case here. Hammer and Chalamet are an excellent match - one can imagine Guadagnino smiling to himself when screen testing these two together.

There are two moments in this film that set it on a different plain to most. The first is a speech from the ubiquitous Stuhlbarg (he’s in 3 best picture nominated films this year alone). If he hasn’t already established himself as one of the finest actors around, this will do the job. The tenderness and wisdom of his words are remarkable as he muses on the importance of feeling the pain that love can bring. The second is the final shot of the film. It is astounding how much Chalamet is able to convey at this moment: the past, present and future etched on his face. Add this to Sufjan Stevens’ beautiful soundtrack, and the sense of nostalgia becomes profound.

Very occasionally, some films are able to tap into a feeling within us all, one that unites us through its memory but also isolates us through how personal and painful it was. Call Me By Your Name’s ability to do this leaves us reeling but also knowing that unlocking these feelings is bittersweet: going through it helped us become the person we are. That’s storytelling of the highest order. TS