The Transfiguration and Personal Shopper

You do not expect vampire movies and ghost stories at the Cannes Festival. But this time round we got both. The most impressive of the two new films was New Yorker Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration, in which Milo, a black teenager with an inferiority complex, sucks blood to gain enough confidence to face the world. He lives with his elder brother in a tatty apartment in Rockaway, Long Island, has no parents, few friends and is remorselessly bullied by other teenagers in the housing project. He is being given counselling for all this, and the fact that he has committed acts of animal cruelty. But no one knows about his blood-sucking exploits, except watchers of the film, since in an early scene, Milo kills a customer in a loo, biting his neck and then taking his money. O’Shea, who is over 40 and has been trying to make a feature for years, has finally constructed a tall tale which is as much about impoverished youth as it is about vampirism.

The film is not so much a shocker as an independent’s view of social and cultural deprivation. There are plenty of references to other vampire and horror movies. But The Transfiguration remains a unique take on such things. O’Shea is lucky to have a performance from Eric Ruffin in the leading role since the actor maintains a strong presence throughout which never disintegrates into parody, even when all the geek talk about horror movies threatens to stop the thrust of the film in its tracks. Maybe all this will not be enough for those seeking blood and gore in such stories. But O’Shea, who must have made the quietest vampire movie on record, seems dedicated to constructing a debut feature that is as much a typical American, socially aware independent movie as a blood and guts late night thriller. Sometimes, it is true, the drama of The Transfiguration is worryingly slow-burning. But the film makes its mark as an unusual take on its subject matter from a film-maker who has patiently waited his chance to see what he can do.

French director Olivier Assayas has been presented at Cannes four times but Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart and in English, seems a strange way to gather international success. Stewart, clearly a fresh talent as we already know, is the personal shopper of the title. She shops for a leading model who spares no expense in looking good. But she finds that her boss has suddenly gone missing and, worse still for her, a smokey-looking ghost begins to terrify her. Not only that but strange messages appear on her mobile phone, some of them threatening. Slowly but surely she becomes paranoid, desperately trying to discover what has happened and why the messages and the strange apparitions multiply. Assayas is clearly enjoying himself with his ghost story and has certainly got a very decent performance out of Stewart. But this, unlike The Transfiguration, was a competition entrant, and roundly booed at the press showing, possibly for its temerity in giving us more ectoplasm than sense. If it gets a prize, which is highly doubtful, the boos will only increase. At Cannes they like a bit more intellectual rigor than Assayas gives us this time.

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Loach and co at Cannes

There are few certainties at Cannes. But one of them is that British veteran Ken Loach will get an ovation for any new film he cares to put before us. The last time he was at Cannes with Jimmy’s Hall, he announced that he was giving up feature films to concentrate on documentaries. But I, Daniel Blake, has proved that now he is approaching 80, he is entitled to change his mind.

Daniel Blake is a 59-year-old Newcastle joiner and carpenter who suddenly has a heart attack and is thus thrown on the mercy of the welfare state. It is not an easy process. A healthcare professional strips him of the disability benefit his doctor recommends and he has to claim jobseeker’s allowance instead, even though he can’t work. At the benefit office, he meets Katie, the mother of two young children who has been forced to leave her single room in London in order to get a flat in Newcastle. Furious at the unfairness of it all, Blake gets evicted from the premises and a friendship ensues which is firmed up at a food bank later on. There, at last, some kindness reaches the desperate pair. At least somebody cares.

Clearly, of course, Loach and Paul Laverty, his now regular screenwriter, care too. But they have been careful not to make too angry and one-sided a film. There is humour there too, and a dramatic ending when Blake and Katie quarrel over her work as an escort. Above all, the performances are terrific. Dave Johns and Hayley Squires carry I, Daniel Blake throughout. If the film isn’t exactly Loach’s very best work, it is certainly one which will please almost everybody who sees it. Already many territories have a been sold, and there will undoubtedly be more to follow.

There is rather less to commend the other British film in competition—Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. Prized at Cannes for both Red Road and Fish Tank, her first largely American film seems a considerable regression. It has Sasha Lane as a young woman who joins a noisy gang of teens travelling across the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions. Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough are the more experienced members of the cast and there is little doubt that the best thing about the film is their feeling for their parts. This is at least piece about teens you can readily believe in.

The worst facet of the movie is its more than two and a half hours length. At times, the editing seems almost non-existent. Nor does the drama of American Honey amount to much. Nothing much happens that hasn’t happened in the story before. Still, the lively playing is something. But it is never quite enough.

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Cannes Opener: Café Society

If you never know what you are going to get from Woody Allen, a director who writes notes on an old typewriter which do not always translate into great movies, the same could be said for the Cannes Festival’s opening films. Sometimes you just have to look away towards the bigger fish of the competition and hope like hell.

This time, however, most people were satisfied with Café Society, which sets itself in the Golden Age of Hollywood, is wonderfully shot by Vittorio Storaro, one of the best cinematographers around, and tells the story of a young nightclub manager (Jesse Eisenberg) who goes from gauche young man to disillusioned veteran largely because of a broken heart. There are echoes of Crimes and Misdemeanors here. But the film never quite reaches those considerable heights.

Maybe because Allen is now 80, and still plagued by his son Ronan Farrow who has reasserted old charges of sexual abuse and doesn’t much care for the way Cannes celebrates his father, the film’s tone is ironic rather than acid where Hollywood is concerned. It is almost as if Allen is ambivalent about what fame and celebrity does to you and, while appreciating the upside, knows about the downside pretty well.

Café Society, lest we forget, may be a minor strut in the large Allen canon but it has been made by one of the most fluent directors in America and, for that reason alone, is worth savouring. Add the excellent performances from Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as the object of his love, and you get a decent essay on love, guilt and, above all, fate.

This must have suited a security-obsessed Cannes very well, and even Woody’s barbed remarks about the unfair nature of competition, were not taken as an offence. George Mad Max Miller, head of the jury, merely opined that “the simple joy of being here” countered any doubts about handing prizes around. Allen, of course, won’t get one since Café Society is firmly out of competition.

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George Routier’s Farrebique was the first Fipresci award at the Cannes Festival and this year there will be a special performance of the film in celebration of the anniversary of both Fipresci itself and the film. Fipresci is the International Association of Film Critics which now covers 62 countries and distributes awards at a large number of film festivals worldwide.

Most people think that the critic’s chief job is to report on the latest films put before the public. But it is equally important to remind cinema goers of went before in the short history of the cinema. This is what Fipresci, the international association of film critics, has always tried to do. In a period when the theatrical audience for films is substantially younger than it was when the family audience held sway, the task of informing the young about the cinema’s heritage becomes more and more important. The ignorance that often prevails is depressing in the extreme.

That is why I am happy to celebrate George Rouquier’s Farrebique, a documentary made in black and white in 1945 which still manages after all these years to be included in many lists of the ten most innovative documentaries ever made. Amazingly, it was Rouquier’s first feature and came as a necessary corrective to the often flimsy escapism of the French cinema during the German Occupation. Its view of the world was both naturalistic and poetic as the film traces the four seasons and the work and lives of farmers deep in the French countryside.

We see a grandfather’s death and the birth of a baby, the ploughing and harvesting, a way of life as hard as it was fulfilling. The pageant of the seasons was all-important in these simple people’s lives. While being affirmative, Farrebique is never sentimental and, while often simplicity itself, it is never naive. Yes, it subscribes to Petain’s ideology of “work, family and fatherland”. But if it is linked to the Occupation years, it also pushes past the stern barriers of the time.

You can watch the film now and note its occasional lack of sophistication and even political awareness of a world beyond its confines. But it still works brilliantly on the senses. It makes you believe in these people and the microcosm they live in, commanded by a nature that is in turn kind and cruel. Rouquier is not like Visconti and his film is not like La Terra Trema. Nor does the comparison with the praised British school of documentary and Flaherty hold up. Farrebique is a unique film made with love and skill, and no one studying the documentary form should fail to see it. Unlike many observational films made now it allows you to think your own thoughts. The film whispers rather than shouts. It has been copied many times but remains proudly its inimitable self.

— Derek Malcolm, Honorary President of Fripesci.

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Top 5 Sports Movies

Here are my top 5 sports movies of all time, in no particular order:

Zidane: A 20th Century Portrait (2006)

No film about sport subtly encapsulates what it means to the individual performer as Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane. With the aid of 18 cameras under the supervision of the celebrated cinematographer Darius Khondji, the film trains a gimlet eye on superstar Zidane during a match between Real Madrid and Villareal. You watch him doing nothing much or suddenly springing into what looks like lazy action. Towards the end he is sent off following a brawl. You could be forgiven for finding the film a 90-minute bore, despite the music of Scots rock band Mogwai. But the more you know about the game, the more you are likely to appreciate it. Zidane was a footballer who could seem surprisingly ordinary. But that was his best deceit. Given half a chance, he took a whole one. So does this film, filtering almost subconsciously into the imagination.

The Wrestler (2008)

Most films about sport concentrate more on the participants than on the particular sport itself. But the best of them make authenticity as important as drama. Darren Aronofsky certainly does in The Wrestler, which has Mickey Rourke as a once famous grappling star who, some 20 years later, is reduced to appearing in third-rate venues and considering his whole life, inside and outside the ring, a failure. Rourke was favourite for the Best Actor Oscar, deserved it but did not win. Yet as Randy ‘The ram’ Robinson he gives a superbly graded performance, making the sometimes bloody wrestling look intensely real and, outside the ring, contemplating the breakdown of his relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) together with the fact that his whole life seems to be an emotional vacuum unless it is arthritically performing in the ring. It is often the case that the comments of sports losers are more intriguing than those of the winner. And undoubtedly The Ram is a loser. Aronofsky examines him and professional wrestling with an anti-romantic but never entirely unsympathetic eye.

Raging Bull (1980)

Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film is not just one of the most powerful sports films ever made. It is also one of the most powerful ever made in whatever genre. Yet it was shot in black and white, a considerable risk, and required Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta not only to look like one of the most aggressive of professional boxers but to lose several stones of weight to achieve some kind of physical authenticity. The film, as poetic as any dealing with the often brutal business of boxing, is about the downfall of a man who couldn’t distinguish battering his opponents to defeat from a personal life of almost pathological jealousy and lack of control. Admittedly the boxing itself is sometimes over dramatised. But De Niro’s performance, on the very edge of melodrama, never tips over unconvincingly. This is one of Scorsese’s greatest films, containing within it a masterful portrait of a man who carried from the ring his instinct to destroy not only his imagined adversaries but himself.

Olympia (1936)

There have been a number of official films traversing the Olympic Games. But only two have achieved some kind of classic status. The first ever, made by the controversial German director Leni Riefenstahl, was a ground-breaking summation of the Berlin Games of 1936. Almost equally distinctive was Japanese film-maker Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) which exhibited a much more personal approach, often eschewing the actual results in favour of examining the pressures on individuals competing for Gold and often failing. Riefenstahl’s film has been criticised as a product of the Nazi propaganda machine (she was undoubtedly implicated as a supporter of the regime, however reluctant, and there are three minutes of Hitler himself included in the final cut).But also included is a paean of praise for Jesse Owens, the Black American winner of four gold medals whose success infuriated the Fuehrer, and no one can cavil at the brilliance and dramatic impact of the multi-camera film-making. Ichikawa was also under political pressure to produce a film which would make viewers feel that a peacetime Japan had absolved itself from its brutal part on the Second World War. It is palpably humane and an entirely original concept. But Riefenstahl’s film just pips it on my list, largely because no one has yet quite equalled its overall flair and impact.

Hoop Dreams (2012)

Oscar nominated but unaccountably ignored by the Academy’s voters, possibly because it concerned the strivings of two African Americans to become basketball stars in racially divided Chicago, Hoop Dreams has now been acknowledged a classic among sports films. Steve James, its director, shot it over a five-year period and examined, entirely without sentimentality, his two inner city street kids as they try to emulate the stars they adore.The pressures of family life, adolescence, probable failure and the hostile neighbourhood from which they come are brilliantly portrayed, and the boys themselves give performances which seem to ignore James’ camera. The film has an astonishing veracity to it, unsurprising perhaps since it is based on the truth, and it slowly but surely pummels its way into the mind’s eye. It is said that the Academy viewers turned it off after 15 mins. It was one of the worst mistakes they ever made.

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Derek has just been, in August, introducing the British films at the Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund; and in September he’ll be taking part in a panel at the Venice Biennale del Cinema; as well, in London, as discussing the film Rashomon for the company KPMG.

On October 4 he’ll be conducting masterclasses with Otar Iosseliani, and on October 6 with Mohsen Makhmalbaf at the 4th London Georgian Film Festival; while on October 5 he’s speaking at the Chelsea Arts Club on the role of the film critic.

In late November, he will be mentoring young Indian filmmakers in Goa.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles

Elementary: The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1921

Elementary: The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1921

Having just seen Bill Condon’s Mr Holmes at the Berlin Film Festival, in which Ian McKellen plays a testy 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes upset that Dr Watson had fibbed about his deerstalker and pipe-smoking, it will be curious to see one of the many adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles brought to the screen again at the Barbican this weekend.

This one, made in 1921 by Maurice Elvey and shown on Sunday (Feb 15, 2015), is actually the one British silent version and the Barbican has arranged a special piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. Eille Norwood plays Holmes and Hubert Willis is Watson.

It was not by any means the first film version of the story — the Germans made at least half a dozen before — but it was the one Arthur Conan Doyle saw and was said to have much admired.

What he would have thought of some of the other versions is anyone’s guess, but one doubts he would have been too pleased with Paul Morrissey’s with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in 1978 or with the 1962 Bollywood adaptation, Bees Saal Baad, directed by Biren Nag.

Elvey’s film is a surprisingly frightening version despite its lack of modern special effects.

It comes from the days when horrific happenings were suggested rather than shown in full with buckets of blood. You had to use your own imagination, and Elvey lets you do so.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is screening at the Barbican cinema on Feb 15, 2015.

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Mr Holmes


Mr Holmes

In his book A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mitch Cullin saw Sherlock Holmes as an old man past 90 who regrets the silly legends that have grown around him and, in his rather testy retirement, tries to solve a previous case that has always baffled him.

Bill Condon’s film takes a few liberties with the book but has a splendid performance as Holmes from Ian McKellen, freed at last from making money in movies which don’t try his abilities unduly.

Devoting himself to bee- keeping and the young boy, son of his country housekeeper, who follows him around, Holmes reflects on a life that doesn’t seem to him anything like as successful as his myriad of fans seem to think. It is a good conceit, and McKellen, Laura Linney and Milo Parker go for it wholeheartedly.

But it is, of course, McKellen’s film, and he shows us how the old regret and bluster about the past at the same time. In physical detail too, he is spot-on. And all this makes Mr Holmes a good watch despite its often quite ordinary making. Not a patch on the other Brit entrant, 45 Years, as good a film as we’ve had in the competition so far. But nice all the same.

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Knight of Cups


Everyone, even the greatest director, is entitled to one bad film. But it is still a shock to discover that Terrence Malick is capable of a rotten egg like Knight of Cups.

It presents Christian Bale as a successful Hollywood star, addicted to all that goes with money and power, who nevertheless has a troubled soul. His two female friends are Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. The former lives in the real world and can’t cope any longer with his. The latter is the embodiment of sensuality who cleaves to him like a beautiful clam.

All this takes place within the expensive fakery of Hollywood where nobody and nothing are quite what they seem. Outside is the real world indeed, halfway destroyed by man’s innate destructiveness.

There is hardly any screenplay apart from a voiceover now and then from Ben Kingsley. But there are a gigantic heap of swirling and often striking images as the star’s mental torture unfolds. Of course, the cinematography is splendid. But the flow never gets beyond telling us things that are fundamentally cliches—that the world’s innocence has been betrayed by the machinations of man.

This is art for art’s sake, and pretty tiresome to watch over two hours and a bit. There is so little in the way of a story and so little development of character that you begin to wonder what has happened to Malick, a precious talent if ever there was one. And what these good and usually eloquent actors are doing in this swingeing mess.

Earlier in the Festival, the generally imaginative Werner Herzog made a compromised hash of his film about Gertrude Bell. Here Malick deserts his story-telling powers for a kind of anarchic abstraction that sinks into bathos. One doesn’t know which is worse. But Knight of Cups takes the lead in this battered critic’s opinion.

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Diary of a Chambermaid



Benoit Jacquot’s Diary of a Chambermaid — the fourth adaptation of the Mirbeau novel already made famous on the screen by Renoir and Buñuel — has Lea Seydoux as the young chambermaid, sent from Paris into the provinces to work for a harsh mistress with a lecherous husband, who falls for the wiles of Vincent Lindon’s handsome manservant.

He turns out to be violently anti-Semitic and the possible murderer of a young Jewish girl. Even so, she is persuaded to leave with him to Cherbourg where he plans to use her as a whore to gain a living.

The film is expertly made and acted, and clearly intends a dig at the bourgeoisie of the early 20th century. But, though eminently watchable, it seems that the dark underbelly of the time and the chambermaid’s determined struggle to use her sensuality to gain her freedom, yis subservient to Benoit’s desire to make a film that confounds the usual parameters of good story-telling.

Most of the time he succeeds, not consistently. Buñuel’s version is still the most audacious, and the best.

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