28 February 2011

Navketan Films: Chetan, Vijay and Dev Anand

NEECHA NAGAR / Lowly City (Dir. Chetan Anand, 1946, India)

TAXI DRIVER
(Dir. Chetan Anand, 1954, India)

Dev Anand in one of his many publicity poses - one of the overlooked stars of 50s Hindi cinema.

Trapped amongst the ideological sincerities of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt was Dev Anand - the suave, sardonic and gentlest of screen heroes who came closest to perfecting the charismatic yet unpredictable persona of Hollywood noir film stars like John Garfield. It was in 1949 that the Anand brothers got together, establishing Navketan Films, an independent production company. Between the creatively enriching period beginning in 1952 with Afsar and reaching its artistic zenith in 1965 with Guide, Navketan helped ttransform Dev Anand into one of the most popular Indian film stars of the 1950s whilst offering a slew of great films which attempted to and largely succeeded on occasions to bridge the sacred gap between art and commerce. The Anand brothers were comprised of Chetan, Dev and Vijay. Chetan Anand, the eldest, was also the most political and his deep ideological involvement with IPTA during and after partition led to him directing one of the earliest examples of an emerging social realist style imported from theatre. The film in question was none other than Neecha Nagar, the first Indian film to be screened at Cannes and the first to win a prize. It’s not surprising that Chetan’s strong socialist beliefs would leave a lasting impact on both Dev and Vijay Anand.

Released in 1954, Taxi Driver, is perhaps their best known film of the 50s period and whilst it takes much of its aesthetic influences from film noir, the combination of all three brothers – Chetan as director, Vijay as writer and Dev as main lead produced a semi realist tale about the proletarian imprisoned in a new urban dystopia of broken dreams and class divisions. In principle the vision of the city as a hostile landscape in which the anti-hero (though romantically inclined) must struggle to preserve his moral integrity was shared amongst many of the major film makers of the era including Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Zia Sarhadi. The accents of the angry young man as personified by the Vijay persona of Amitabh can be traced directly back to films such as Awaara, Boot Polish and Taxi Driver in which the proletarian must come to terms with his lowly position within the grand scheme of things. In many ways, the repeated thematic pronunciations of the family coming under attack and the corruption of the innocent rural woman was common place in the narratives of melodramas, indicating strongly popular cinema’s subservience to the ordinary dilemmas that plagued the mainstream.

Dev Anand as the hero in Taxi Driver (1954) with comic actor Johnny Walker.

Here is one of the cabaret noir style song and dance numbers from the film, performed by the femme fatale:



Taxi Driver
came about as an economic necessity rather than a committed political dictat. With Navketan under pressure to deliver a hit after two consecutive commercial disappointments, Taxi Driver was quickly put together and shot on a low budget almost entirely on the streets of Mumbai. Released in 1954, the film was a resounding success story with audiences and seemed to continue an interest in film noir first initiated with Baazi in 1951 which was directed by Guru Dutt, one of Dev Anand’s many exciting discoveries. Interestingly, the period between 1949 and 1965 is generally considered to be one of the richest creative periods in the history of Indian cinema, explaining why Navketan flourished in generating new cinematic ideas. Hailing from Punjab, Dev Anand started his career as an arts graduate at the University of Lahore before making the decisive journey to Bombay. Alternating between his own production company and the illustrious and commercially successful Bombay based Filmistan Studios, Dev Anand cultivated a gentler and more romantic persona than those of his contemporaries like Guru Dutt who embraced a vein of fatalism and tragedy. Mixing comedy with heroism and largely rejecting the Devdas complex, Dev Anand’s naturalistic approach can still be detected today in contemporary Indian film stars including Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan; in many ways along with Shammi Kapoor it has strangely become the dominant star persona, though few would like to admit so preferring to point unashamedly to both Amitabh and Dilip Kumar.

Chetan Anand’s directorial debut Neecha Nagar (Lowly City) was released in the same year as its counterpart Dharti Ke Lal, directed by K A Abbas, another advocate of the IPTA cause. It is important to bear in mind that Chetan Anand later broke away from Navketan citing creative differences only to re-emerge after an extended hiatus in 1965 with the seminal war film Haqeeqat. Whilst Dharti Ke Lal was an official IPTA production, Neecha Nagar aligned itself more with a Gandhian ideology of passive resistance. Director Chetan Anand had in fact left the IPTA before embarking on Neecha Nagar, criticising the organisation for exploiting its position to propagate leftist dogma. Film critic and journalist Rajiv Vijayakar offers a detailed overview of Chetan Anand’s career in his piece for Screen India. Inspired rather than based on Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Neecha Nagar represents an almost dystopian vision of Indian society in which rampant class divisions are extenuated by the clear geographical demarcations that exist between the wealthy, ruling elite who reside in the mountains and the poor, oppressed workers in the lowly city below. Such an acute political and economic dichotomy echoes that of Lang’s Metropolis. Similarly the figure of the corrupt industrialist despot attempts to placate the worker’s revolt, buying influence and openly breeding disunity. A thematic recurrence of the rural village as a place of utopian socialist ideals struggling to counter the corrupting weight of modernity would eventually become a defining ideological characteristic of the Hindi realist melodrama.

The despotic landowner is indifferent to the concerns of the poor villagers.

The leader of the village revolt and voice of the oppressed.

The story of Neecha Nagar sees the landowner, representing the forces of elitism, approve of and build a sewage system that cuts through the village of the poor oppressed farmers. Indifferent to their plight, the sewage corrupts the water supply, destroys the crops and spreads disease leading to a shallow attempt on behalf of the landowner to construct a hasty makeshift hospital offering free treatment to the sick. The politicised face of the villagers represented in a secular and transparent manner view the hospital as yet another extension of the landowner’s hegemonic grasp and openly instruct all of the villagers to resist by refusing free treatment. For the hard liners of the village, to get treatment and use the hospital would in fact be giving into the rule of the wealthy elite. It is a defiant stance and one that claims a number of emotional sacrifices but most significantly it develops into a resistance openly rejecting violence and relying on dissent. Whilst the film does feature some songs and dance sequences with music by Ravi Shankar, the raw aesthetics offer one of the most striking examples of early neo realism. Interestingly, Neecha Nagar’s achievements at Cannes were shared amongst a number of films including Rossellini’s Rome, Open City – both films were fashioned on similar humanist sensibilities.

(Click on image for full size version)

However, the cinematography of Neecha Nagar articulates expressionism imported from German cinema which is very much absent from Rossellini’s historically determined canvas. In a way the expressionistic vein jeopardises the validity of the realist agenda so emphatically stated through the overt political symbolism of the ideologically sentimental characterisation. Despite the criticisms concerning expressionism and realism invoked by Chetan Anand, a third and perhaps more pertinent stylistic tendency emerges in the form of documentary. This may in fact be the common link between Rome, Open City and Neecha Nagar as they both claim to be realist texts because there are sacred moments when both films blur the line between fiction and reality reminding us of an actuality being embraced. Take for example the moment in Neecha Nagar when the villagers realise the landowner has cut off the only clean water supply to the village. A montage is used, documenting the gaunt figures of the poor villagers – we know these are not actors but real people who are photographed without any sense of romanticism. Their existence in neo realism terms is declared by their perpetual gaze and marginal status – rendering them visible makes them doubly political. The ideologue of Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray were all formed in the spirit of such moments and it is not hard to see why Neecha Nagar continues to occupy such a privileged position in the realist trend that would only really come to fruition in the 1950s and beyond.

Here is a fantastic interview with Dev Anand who talks at length about his illustrious and at times brilliant career:

26 February 2011

THE CRITERION COLLECTION : QUALITY CONTROL and THE DVD MARKET

The famous Criterion logo - Criterion have the set the standard for excellence in the DVD market.

The folks at Criterion have such an envious job; res-discovering, repackaging and revising film history to an audience of eager cine-philes but doing so with a lot of style and finesse. To date Criterion has released 26 series of films under their new Eclipse label including obscure and out of print work by Mikio Naruse, Louis Malle, Ozu and Alexander Korda. However, for the discerning UK cine-phile, a multi region DVD player is a must if one is to tap into such new material. Additionally, ordering through DVD websites as imports makes the whole enterprise a little costly. Hulu, a VOD service, only available in the states, has just started streaming a lot of the Criterion library and I think this might be the way forward in the UK. Most of the Criterion collection is available online but it just seems absurd and counter-productive locking those exact DVDs which were made specifically to challenge issues to do with availability and accessibility. In many cases, films released on DVD in the UK are being given the Criterion treatment in a way that makes one question the approach taken by many UK DVD distributors when it comes to justifying the price they can charge for cult, art-house and independent films.

Fish Tank is a case in point; whilst it was given a standard release on DVD in the UK, in America, Criterion have actually acknowledged the importance of Andrea Arnold by releasing Fish Tank in a glorious edition featuring a plethora of special features. The same goes for seminal films like La Haine and even Gomorrah. Additionally, a quick scurry through Gary Tooze’s wonderful website DVDBeaver illustrates many of my points regarding the exceptional standards of DVD distribution established by Criterion. Comparing the Criterion release to the standard DVD release, Tooze in his technical analysis seems to underline a marked difference in terms of transfer, audio and extras. Also lacking aside from the films released by the BFI and Masters of Cinema is a booklet or pdf with useful essays and articles – Criterion has managed to succeed in continuing the experience of buying a DVD through their online website which offers yet more celebration of film culture. I did intend to write something about Basil Dearden’s 1960 crime film The League of Gentlemen (which has been re-issued as part of a series of Dearden's more obscure films by Criterion) but I seemed to have got side tracked with the current state of DVD packaging and distribution. Admittedly, Criterion does not see itself as part of the mass way in which most DVDs are manufactured by the major film corporations – packaged blandly and filled with useless extras that add little or nothing to the overall educative experience.

Compare this to the diabolical way in which Indian films are released on DVD and one just fills with utter rage and contempt for the distributors and people responsible. With such a sizable South Asian Diaspora audience in the UK one is simply astounded that no one has released many of the great Indian classics like Mother India and Awaara in the Criterion way including commentary tracks, special features and stronger transfers. The Indian government recently announced it is pouring millions into salvaging many of the prints to classic films which are slowly decaying. I hope they have acted in time. Yes, I know, a lot of what I am saying would be explained away quite quickly by pointing to the economics of the film industry. As for Dearden, well, I will have to come back to him later on next week. Here are couple of suggestions for changing the DVD industry and helping the cinephile become even more cine-literate:

1). Get rid of region coding

2). Campaign for Criterion to release their DVDs in the UK

3). Force Indian DVD distributors/labels to release worthwhile prints and think long and hard about packaging including special features especially for classic films

4). Drop the DVD prices of art house, world cinema and cult films

5). Make more of these films available to watch for free online (it might stop piracy)

I hope to return to this debate in the coming weeks to comment further on the Indian DVD market.

22 February 2011

REAGAN (Dir. Eugene Jarecki, 2011, US/UK) - Idol Worship?

Documentary film maker Eugene Jarecki seems to have firmly settled on the objective of political deconstruction and in his previous works that included an expose of Kissinger (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) and a probing look at what exactly motivates America to go to war (Why We Fight), his refusal to polemicise has allowed for a degree of objectivity not normally found in such a genre. Unlike Michael Moore and even Nick Broomfield, personalising events subjectively shapes material into an uneasy alliance with personal political beliefs. Of course, every documentary selects and construct reality but sometimes especially when politics are involved giving the spectator more autonomy becomes crucial if one is to retain any sense of artistic integrity. Funded with a grant made available from Sundance and co produced with HBO documentaries, Reagan looks at the origins, development and eventual presidency of Ronald Reagan. Demythologising such an iconic symbol of American power is what is really at the heart of Jarecki’s approach and by the end of the documentary the benign media manufactured image of Reagan as the great American saviour is exposed as not only a fraud but one that continues to be perpetuated solely to advance the Republican party in American politics.

Jarecki appropriately and pertinently begins with the title ‘How Images Are Created’ - this becomes a motif that underpins the entire demythologising as the interviews with commentators attempts to separate the real man from the one staged managed by his slick publicity guru’s. Jarecki compellingly details Reagan’s ascendancy to public office from his time in Hollywood, focusing on his role as an FBI informant during the McCarthyite era and also his rapid transformation into a spokesperson for the corporate elite, namely General Electrics. The major part of the documentary focuses in on the now widely accepted economic ideology of 'Reaganomics' in which America under his presidency saw the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich, creating one of the greatest economic disparities between rich and poor, a savage hegemonic reality which continues to be sustained today. Perhaps the most critical section of the documentary is Reagan’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. His vitriolic anti communist stance which he inoculated back in the fifties is shown to be the ideological motivation for his impeachable decision to defy congress and support the despicable Contras in Nicaragua. Not only does this section delve into the questionable notion of war by proxy but unveils Reagan’s bellicose and almost ferverent mission to bring about the end of communism. This section ends with Reagan apologising sheepishly to the American people and coming clean about trading arms for hostages with Iran.

Whilst Jarecki is altogether more successful in the process of demythologising, the final sequences are a little dubious as they offer a compromise that present Reagan as somewhat sympathetic and even tragic. Nevertheless, Jarecki does pull back somewhat from taking up an overtly sympathetic position by using Jimmy Carter’s presidential address to point to moral and cultural crisis still facing American society today - it is the idea that the freedom sold to the American people is one wrapped up in consumerism not morality, equality or liberty. In many ways, it is a chilling ideological denouement that favours the misunderstood liberalism of Carter for the superficial, polarising conservatism of the Reagnite era. Let’s finish with a quote from Noam Chomsky - ‘If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.’ Chomsky's quote raises an important question - is it even justifiable that someone should be even attempting to offer a balanced account of Reagan given the evidence he defied congress and ran covert military operations and backed brutal opposition groups in South America. Like Bush and Blair, what this amounts to are a series of war crimes which have endlessly been perpetuated by successive administrations to protect American hegemony. Documentaries including Reagan and Inside Job sustain the argument that film has really struggled to deal with the political issues of our time. I think my major problem with such documentaries that offer some kind of revisionist approach to popular historical figures is the lack of and at times total denial of a voice to the victims of power.

21 February 2011

INSIDE JOB (Dir. Charles Ferguson, 2010, US) - Bamboozled By The Powers That Be

A documentary should observe, educate and propagate a reality which is perhaps unfamiliar to us. The rise of politically oriented documentaries were really accelerated by the work of Michael Moore and whilst he has dumbed down on certain political issues his intentions of helping to oust Bush, change the outcome of an election, raise awareness on the prevalence of gun culture and dissect the crimes of what is a defunct American health care system, they are all socialist endeavours that must be praised. Inside Job should be part of a cycle of documentaries responding to the current global economic crisis and recession but unfortunately this has not transpired in the way the medium responded so effectively and politically to the war on terror, the Iraq war and the Bush regime. Written and directed by Charles Ferguson, Inside Job is more frightening that any horror film you are likely to come across this year as it deals with a horrifying contemporary reality which is hard to stomach as it was instigated and calculatingly perpetuated by a sickening economic elite who are not judged for their crimes but live in a realm of disturbing exclusivity.

Similarly like Eugene Jarecki responsible for the new documentary on Ronald Reagan, writer and director Charles Ferguson refuses to involve himself personally and his on screen absence means any sense of performance is invisible in the face of argument building. Inside Job is largely successful, though it does get a little complicated when it comes to the economic jargon, in its analysis of the complexity behind the current global crisis. Ferguson draws a number of conclusions, many of which are still being debated, on the current economic crisis; white collar criminals were responsible, Wall Street should be indicted, self regulation means no regulation, this was not a banking crisis but mass fraud, the rich benefited enormously, the status quo had to be preserved, the financial institutions of America dictate policy both domestic and foreign. Perhaps the one conclusion that really stood out for me personally as a teacher was the legitimisation of such illegal and amoral economic practises, many of which are enforced by the American education establishment in which respected economic professors and teachers (mostly Harvard) are effectively representing the interests of the major financial institutions. It’s a shameful alliance.

20 February 2011

ANTAREEN / CONFINED (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1993, India) - Disconnected

Actress Dimple Kapadia and Director Mrinal Sen during the filming of Antareen.
(Still courtesy of the Mrinal Sen website)

Adapted from a story by Punjabi writer Sadat Hasan Manto, Mrinal Sen’s disjunctive Antareen is a study of two lost souls unable to make a concrete emotional connection. Compared to the political films Sen directed in the 60s and 70s, Antareen feels somewhat tame and at times apolitical. The premise sees a struggling writer confined to an old mansion in Calcutta in an attempt to find inspiration for a new novel. However, one night the writer (Anjan Dutt) receives an anonymous phone call from a woman (Dimple Kapadia) who simply wants to talk. The writer soon discovers through the telephone conversations that the woman seems trapped in her life and has in essence been cut off from society. Additionally, the relationship seems to trigger a new creative energy within the writer and he uses the intimacy of the woman’s experiences as a means of writing his new novel. The dilapidated mansion in which the writer stays is shown to have a life of its own – it is a colonial past that bears down upon those who inhabit it. In terms of characterisation, the mansion, which is effectively represented as a haunted house, acts as an appropriate psychological landscape for the loneliness of the writer and the woman. In terms of form, Sen employs various Brechtian devices including direct camera address to construct a narrative that is cleverly being imagined by the writer’s words. In a way, the momentary encounter on the train platform in the closing moments is reflexively manifested by the writer and the woman through an imaginary connection but their distance even when they are so close suggests such a deliberate encounter is purely an illusion as empty as their broken gaze. I’m not sure if I want to label Antareen as a minor work in the oeuvre of Sen as it certainly underlines a cinematic radicalism consistent with what has been a career of intellectualism. On a side note, Sen's 1983 film Khandahar (The Ruins) starring Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi will be playing in a new print at the Glasgow Film Festival next week.

19 February 2011

KASBA (Dir. Kumar Shahani, 1990, India) – Chekovian Decadence

A graduate of the FTII, avant-garde director Kumar Shahani’s political outlook may have largely been shaped by the Naxalite movement but his aesthetic sensibilities were forged in France whilst assisting Robert Bresson on Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Woman, 1969). Additionally, Shahani was also taught by Bengali iconoclast Ritwik Ghatak in his brief spell at the FTII and the unconventional, personal approach to making films has led to a career in art cinema which seems to have gone unacknowledged in his country of origin. His directorial debut Maya Darpan (1972) is recognised by many as India’s first formalist film but subsequently he struggled to find funding to develop his interests in the avant-garde. Both Tarang (1984) and Kasba (1990) were financed by the NFDC and are two of Shahani’s most accessible films. Neither of them are what we would consider to be mainstream but the melodrama trappings elucidates a concern with feudal systems in which power relations are contested amongst the family. I do know that Shahani’s work has been screened in retrospectives in the west and that a lot of the prints to his major works have been restored. Nevertheless, I saw Kasba on a VCD copy and it was surprisingly good but I could see how Shahani’s film would benefit from a new print given the creative use of colour cinematography seems intrinsic to the seasonal landscapes.

Released in 1990 Kasba is one of the slowest and most compelling Indian films I have come across in a while. It is unlike anything I have encountered before in Indian cinema and whilst Ghatak was a direct influence on Shahani, two films in particular from the work of Satyajit Ray come to mind – Charulata and Kanchenjunga. Adapted from a short story by Chekov titled ‘In The Ravine’, Kasba was shot in the Kangra Valley – a picturesque tourist spot that is framed by the snow capped Himalayan mountains. The story itself is complicated to the say the least and Shahani’s repeated use of narrative ellipsis means one has to do a lot of detective work, piecing together and inferring from the behaviour of the many characters as to what has occurred in the development of the storyline. Thematically, Shahani’s interest is with the passing of a feudal system in which patriarchy is represented as inadequate to deal with and respond to modernity. Ideologically, the notion of change is manifested in the character of Tejo (Mita Vasisht) who runs the family business in the absence of two ‘fallen’ brothers unable to come to terms with their hereditary obligations.

One of the most impressive aesthetic elements of Kasba is the positioning of the camera, moving only to parallel the psychological and emotional mood of the characters, whilst windows and doorways are used repeatedly throughout to frame the actions of characters so that the exterior landscapes merge seamlessly with the interiors creating a feeling of social inertia and even rural decadence. At times, Shahani’s emphasis on the rituals and traditions tied up in the history of the family recalls a philosophical approach characteristic of anthropologists. Shahani’s observation of life in the Kangra Valley is measured in the vivid use of natural sounds to which the ambitious and ruthless Tejo becomes impervious. Of course, it the naturalism of the soundtrack that is used in opposition to the destruction of the family and Tejo’s desire to inherit the ancestral wealth including the land leads to the ostracizing of Tara (sister in law) and the death of her child. In terms of visual composition, Shahani relies greatly on the master shot and much of the narrative action unfolds an organic pace in keeping with the ruralism whilst the interiors are dominated by miniature art representative of Kangra valley culture. In many ways, the characters aside from Tejo seem trapped in the past, paralysed by tradition and their sense of inertia is personified by such antiquated tapestry. Released when parallel cinema was reaching its epoch of creativity, Kasba is a major achievement and in the words of Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, ‘the film’s main generic achievement is to recall to the melodrama its original function, of integrating marginalised people and their languages into a mainstream culture’.

18 February 2011

TRUE GRIT (Dir. Ethan & Joel Coen, 2010, US) - Last Men Standing

The Coen Brothers have inoculated such an intense degree of authorial respectability around their work that they simply cannot do any wrong and whilst they have certainly made films which one could label as mediocre, average and flawed, none of this seems to have really affected their status as great film makers. Post Lebowski, the Coen’s oeuvre for me has fallen short of their earlier and much more creative works such as Raising Arizona, Blood Simple and the masterful Barton Fink. They have been careful not to abandon their independent roots by selling out and allowing themselves to become subsumed into the mainstream. Whilst overt artistic compromises may have not taken place, the recent slew of prolific films have pointed to a gradual yet uncertain shift into the mainstream. A film like True Grit carries with it the discriminatory award season baggage thus the critical opinion has predictably over praised its somewhat limited achievements. As a western I found it very conventional and certainly lacking in revisionist ideals. In a way, perhaps this explains why it has been so popular with audiences – it is strangely conservative and moralistic for a film from the idiosyncratic universe of the Coen Brothers. Of course, one could argue that such conservatism naturally comes out of the decision to remain true to the original source material.

This is a Fordian western that taps into a vein of American heroism far removed from the existential meditations of violence offered by Peckinpah, Leone and Eastwood. That sense of outrage, brutality and callousness is somewhat missing, thus transforming the film into an apolitical melodrama rather than a revisionist western which is what I was largely expecting. Having said that, the figure of the aging cowboy who has very little time left to make amends for his past sins was often evident in the roles played by John Wayne; the cowboy as relic and symbol of the past is one that has often interested me and I don’t think this was an aspect of Cogburn’s character that was fully explored. What the Coen’s do prove with such a traditional revenge western as True Grit is the power and appeal of genres to inhibit authorial creativity whilst simultaneously offering audiences the comforts of having their expectations fulfilled. It would be interesting to see in which parts of America True Grit has found the biggest audience because the biblical tone it strikes particularly in it’s hurried ending seems to suggest that this a film which has surely been embraced by the ‘Bible Belt’ of America.

4 February 2011

NEDS (Dir. Peter Mullan, 2010, UK) - Non-Educated Delinquents

The Magdalene Sisters is a powerful, realist critique of abuse in the Catholic establishment and Peter Mullan’s latest film Neds similarly questions the role of religion in a working class Glaswegian community. Semi autobiographical, Neds is both a study of gang culture in 1970s Glasgow and a family melodrama that Mullan has referred to as a Greek tragedy. The bleakness with which Mullan represents the adolescent working class youth of John McGill (Conor McCarron) echoes recent films like Gomorrah, Red Road and This is England. All of these films depict a familiar social realist situation in which the youth in particular are victims of unemployment, poverty and urban dystopia. In the case of Neds, John McGill is a notably intelligent student and excels rapidly in his school, attracting the label of a swot. However, his desire for social mobility is exacerbated by the more disruptive youth elements around him especially at school, eventually leading to his social exclusion from education. John McGill like Shaun in This is England is really searching for a sense of belonging and gang culture becomes attractive because of the identity it offers disaffected youth trying desperately to resist the mainstream values of society.

The sequences in the classroom point to a thematic concern with social exclusion, underlining a defunct education system in which working class kids are either written off completely or seduced by the relative excitement of gang warfare. Unlike This is England and the recent Fish Tank in which father’s are absent from the family equation, in Neds, the family is a broken one in which the father played by Mullan lives in a permanent state of despair and hopelessness. Such despair is mirrored in the lack of direction McGill begins to experience as he becomes increasingly involved in gang violence. Mullan’s work owes a lot to the social realist tradition of Ken Loach and in many ways Neds is an extension of My Name is Joe which Mullan made with Loach in 1998. This is by far the best film I have seen this year and an example of British cinema that is the complete antithesis of a film like The King’s Speech. In other words, it is unpretentious, socially relevant, brilliantly performed (most of the actors are non professionals) and deals with ordinary people in an honest way. In years to come it will stand alongside other great British youth films such as Sweet Sixteen, If..., Kes, A Clockwork Orange and This is England. As for the final moments, well, it's magically cinematic in so many ways.

Here's director Peter Mullan talking about the experience of making the film:

DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (Dir. Tsui Hark, 2010, Hong Kong/China) - Immortal Heroes

Andy Lau as the Sherlock Holmes type figure Detective Dee.

Andy Lau has a face that never seems to age. He is 49 but since he started working busily in the Hong Kong industry during the eighties, Lau seems to have preserved his youth. Maybe he’s an immortal – he certainly acts like it in many of his films. As a superstar, Lau has much more poise and grace than his western counterparts whilst his commercial value at the box office has been relatively consistent. Tsui Hark, a key player in the Hong Kong film industry, operates on a level of stylisation that is infectious and wildly hyperbolic. An expensive co-production between Hong Kong and China, Detective Dee is based upon a historical figure Di Renjie from the Tang Dynasty who served as a chancellor in the empire of China’s only woman empress. Hark’s 2005 tribute to Kurosawa, Seven Swords, was somewhat of a disappointment considering the costly budget and extensive production. Lau is wonderfully charismatic as Detective Dee who is the given task of unlocking the mystery behind a spate of deaths involving spontaneous combustion. Shot at the Hengdian World Studios in China, (the world’s largest film studios), Tsui Hark’s trademark action flourishes are evident throughout the impressively staged production design. It is likely that we will see a series of Detective Dee film given the commercial success the first film has enjoyed and this is a franchise that potentially has a wider international appeal that is unless Hollywood decides to do a pointless remake. With some terrifically choreographed fight sequences by the legendary Sammo Hung and an engaging political back story, Detective Dee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame is vastly superior to many of the mainstream offerings regularly shoved down out throats by Hollywood. Oh, and it’s a lot of fun too.

1 February 2011

WILD RIVER (Dir. Elia Kazan, 1960, US) - Tormented

Lee Remick and Montgomery Clift in Kazan's Wild River.

Towards the end of his tragic career, a neurosis was plainly visible in the vulnerable figure of Montgomery Clift. It was vulnerability that he fought to overcome all his life but the guilt of his homosexuality during an age of puritanical conservatism made him a classic outsider. Clift was a terrific actor and an extremely good looking one at that who was subscribing to Stanislavsky’s method approach long before Brando and Dean appeared on the scene with their brash poster boy over sexed egos. Referred to as Kazan’s forgotten masterpiece, Wild River is a complex work that initially offers a melodramatic conflict between the rural and urban but gradually turns into a poignant commentary on human connections. Loneliness is an affliction and symptom of modernity that unites the characters of Clift, Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet who as the aging matriarch refuses to sell her land to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Chuck Glover (Clift) working on behalf of the TVA arrives with instructions to convince Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) to sell and move in time before she is formally evicted by the local authorities. However, he soon falls for Remick, a woman who is fragile and broken as himself. Whilst the representation of race especially black Americans is somewhat suspect, Ella Garth’s defiant stance becomes an emblem of tradition and survival. Like many of Kazan’s best films, it is the undercurrent, be it social, political or sexual that ensures the conflict of values are merely not dramatic but ideologically pertinent. Along with Judgement at Nuremberg and The Misfits, Wild River would be one of Clift’s final performances before his tragic death in 1966, aged only 45.