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Opinion

First look review: The Dark Valley

10 Feb, 2014 Posted in: Berlin, Festivals, Opinion, Review

The Dark Valley

The Dark Valley (Das finistere tal, 2013)

Dir: Andreas Prochaska

Starring: Sam Riley

If you consider the parts played by Sam Riley to date as a string of Byronic outsiders, then surely it was only a matter of time until the actor followed his turns as moody rocker (Control), moody beatnik (On The Road), moody mobster (Brighton Rock) and moody vampire (Byzantium) with a spur-heeled saunter into the (moody) Wild West. But who would have guessed that the opportunity would come in a German-language film set among the chilly climes of the remote Alps?

The Dark Valley, directed by Austrian filmmaker Andreas Prochaska (who, in a previous life, edited Michael Haneke’s Funny Games) and adapted from Thomas Willmann’s period page-turner, enters that small canon of films (which also includes John Hillcoat’s Aussie scorcher The Proposition) that relocate the tropes and texture of the Western genre to a new culture.

The familiar touchstones are all here: honest, hard-working folks straining under the yolk of both the elements and the local thugs; shady goons causing trouble in the saloon (or, in this case, a schnapps den); a mysterious stranger rocking up with an occluded past. This interloper is Greider (Riley), an American who is reportedly visiting the valley to photograph its landscape and its residents – but his arrival spells certain doom for the town’s de facto dictator Brenner and his six sons, who not only exploit their neighbours but periodically rape the community’s women, too.

The original novel’s dedications to spaghetti western supremo Sergio Leone and German ‘homeland’ novelist Lugwig Ganghofer serve as an effective blueprint for Prochaska’s gritty, stylised adaptation, which fetishises the mountain landscape and gory violence in equal measure. Sam Riley may not quite capture Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson’s grim stoicism, but he handles the moody man-in-black job well, although while donning his fur-lined duster and thick winter scarf he does look remarkably like he’s just walked in from a photo-shoot for Burberry’s frontier retro-chic collection.

Stylistically, though, the film is a bit of a botch job. Prochaska shoots for the mythical, terminal inevitability of revisionist bloodbaths, but while he has Peckinpah-style gunfights down pat (complete with effectively squelchy gore and splintering sound design), the story itself is a dreary drudge through angel-of-death revenge flick cliches, with nary a character to be seen among the archetypes and stock players.

For every nice detail – the breaking of ice on the surface of a shaving bowl, the creak and rustle of snow-leaden pines – there are baffling nosedives into unintentionally humorous gothic melodrama, from a fire-and-brimstone sermon from a grizzled priest to a grotesque scene in which Greider forcibly feeds an innkeeper’s wife coins as punishment for corruption.

True, Prochaska’s approach is as subtle as buckshot – but when your themes are as broad as a barn door, it’s pretty hard to miss the mark completely. Ultimately, though, The Dark Valley comes off more like cartoonish pastiche than revival; it’s unsurprising that this well-mounted rehash has already been called ‘the Alpine Django’ in the German press.

Five Sundance Highlights

25 Jan, 2014 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion, Sundance

Film4 Commissioning Executive Anna Higgs shares five highlights from her typically hectic but exhilarating trip to Salt Lake City.

Overall, Sundance has been an absolutely fantastic festival, with Film4 having four films here – premieres of 20,000 Days On Earth, Frank and A Most Wanted Man, and a special screening for The Double, which premiered at Toronto. It’s been a real embarrassment of riches, and has made for a very hectic festival, with lots of running around making sure that the filmmakers are all being looked after and supported. But I’m lucky to have enjoyed some incredible highlights here in Park City, which I will treasure for a long time to come…

Frank

Frank

1. Frank mask bonanza
One of my absolute top highlights definitely has to be seeing the entire audience of Sundance’s biggest theater donning masks of Frank’s face at the premiere of Frank. This was so that director Lenny Abrahamson could take a picture for Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson because they were both sadly away shooting and couldn’t come. It was quite a surreal moment, and it created a real buzz and a real energy for the audience in the screening, it was fantastic.

20,000 Days On Earth

20,000 Days On Earth

2. Nick plays piano
The 20,000 Days On Earth premiere was wonderful. We held it at The Egyptian theatre, this lovely old Art Deco cinema, which this year has this amazing projection mapping artwork on the front of it. Being with directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard and of course Nick Cave when they were doing pre-premiere interviews in the press line and seeing the excitement starting to build was great, and then seeing the film receive not one but two standing ovations was just the best thing that we could have hoped for. It’s been great to see the early press reactions start to come in. And as if the night couldn’t have got any better, Nick did a little impromptu show at the afterparty! He played three songs just on the piano, and asked one terrified looking guy from the audience to turn his pages for the last song. It was incredible.

Blind

Blind

3. The filmmakers
The events that the festival themselves put on are great, and the international filmmakers lunch was a really fantastic one. All the programmers were there – John Cooper, John Nein, Trevor Groth, Kim Yutani and the whole Sundance team. I chatted to lots of filmmakers including Norwegian writer-director Eskil Vogt who made a brilliant film called Blind, and I think he has a huge future ahead of him as a director. He was so excited for people to see the film.

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin

4. The films
Of those I managed to see, the film I liked most was Blue Ruin, which I thought had a really unique style and was really, really unexpected. It’s really inspiring to see the range of films at Sundance, the range of subjects and to see the strands of the competitions, documentary, narrative, animation and shorts all come together in one space. It really showcases how special Sundance is. I’m gutted I’m going a day before seeing Gareth Huw Evans’ The Raid 2. That’s the problem with festivals, you can’t get to everything that you want to get to – but it’s a luxury problem!

5. The panels
A really brilliant highlight for me was the Storyworld Panel at New Frontiers. New Frontiers is curated by Shari Frilot and it is where all of the cutting edge digital and interactive storytelling and artwork takes place. This year they’ve taken it downtown, which is really fantastic, so it’s right in the heart of the festival. I really enjoyed a panel with an amazing range of people including Jonathan Harris, Chris Milk, Aaron Koblin, Nick Fortugno, Susan Bonds and one of the guys from Oculus VR which is this new, wearable virtual reality technology which is being showcased in the festival and has some really interesting implications for immersive story-telling. It was a fascinating panel that really tried to tackle some of the key questions about interactivity, and hit home something in which I passionately believe, namely that the story has to be the star. It can’t be technology or platform first, it has to be about the story and what the best way of telling that story is.

First look review: The Trip To Italy

23 Jan, 2014 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion, Review, Sundance

The Trip To Italy (2014)

Dir. Michael Winterbottom

Starring: Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan

The Trip To Italy

The Trip To Italy

If you’ve seen 2010 film The Trip (or indeed the TV series from which the film was edited together), you’ll know exactly what you’re in for in The Trip To Italy. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, playing versions of themselves, are off on a road trip punctuated by fine dining, competitive impressions of celebrities and caustic analysis of each other’s talents. This time, we’re in Italy, and the pair are on the trail of the Romantic poets who ate, drank, shagged and died there. Brydon and Coogan sail across the Gulf of Poets, brave the traffic in Rome and stop by Pompeii, in a sequence giving Brydon one of his best moments, talking to a petrified corpse.

The dynamic between Brydon and Coogan is more or less the same as the last installment – and that’s no bad thing, as it is the greatest strength of this delightful film. Perhaps Coogan is portrayed as having mellowed slightly – he seems genuinely keen to spend more time with his son – and there is an incident involving Brydon and a yacht crew member that makes Brydon more of a bad guy than we’re used to, but it’s not a film we’re watching because we want to witness dramatic upheavals or wildly variable character arcs; like dinner with an old friend, this is mostly about relaxing in convivial company. However, as before, there is an undertow of melancholy, the fear of failure hovering around the edges of conversations about working in America or being remembered in centuries to come, and it is this that gives the film its robust, rounded character – a grace note in a minor key, if you’ll forgive a la-di-dah metaphor.

The most surprising aspect of the screening I attended here in Sundance was the extent to which the audience of largely local Salt Lake City residents embraced the film’s often fairly culturally specific humour. It probably says more about me than the film or the audience that if asked in advance I would have said the jokes and impressions might be too British to be broadly embraced by an international audience. I would have been completely wrong – the Salt Lake City crowd loved it, adding to a strong run of British films that have been a big hit here in Utah (including Calvary, Frank and 20,000 Days).

 

First look review: Life After Beth

23 Jan, 2014 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion, Review, Sundance

Life After Beth (2014)

Dir. Jeff Baena

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza

Life After Beth

Life After Beth

Joining films like Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies in the subgenre of zombie pictures that incorporate some laughs and romance into their dalliances with the undead, Life After Beth stars an excellent Dane DeHaan as a recently bereaved boyfriend who comes to suspect he is the victim of a hoax when he glimpses someone who looks an awful lot like his late girlfriend hiding out at her parents’ house.

Life After Beth starts strong, with Dane DeHaan engagingly offbeat as a would-be Romeo in mourning. As events progress, it loses focus a little, with characters making decisions that seem implausible even within a world in which the dead walk. What saves it is the goofy sense of fun and daft black humour – just when you’re feeling you can’t possibly suspend your disbelief any more, something sufficiently silly will win you over anew. The film’s larky tone is splendidly complimented by a counterintuitive score of elegant alt-prog moodiness.

I’m going to end on a slight digression which may come off preachy, but it’s been preying on my mind, so here goes: in a week where The Wolf Of Wall Street has been criticized for its use of the word “retard” (a usage that has the advantage of feeling totally in character in the mouths of irredeemably awful 1980s Wall Street arseholes nobody wants to emulate), it’s worth saying that this is also a word chucked about pretty thoughtlessly by Life After Beth’s contemporary teen characters, with whom we’re supposed to be identifying (dead or not). For me it was the one slightly sour note in an otherwise enjoyably imaginative film.

First look review: Love Is Strange

23 Jan, 2014 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion, Review, Sundance

Love Is Strange (2014)

Dir. Ira Sachs

Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina

Love Is Strange

Love Is Strange

At one point in Love Is Strange, John Lithgow’s character Ben complains: “This situation we’ve got ourselves into is really fucking with my sleeping pattern.” That’s really about as dramatic as it gets, for this is the gentlest of gentle dramas. Ben and George (Alfred Molina) finally marry after 39 years together, only for George to be fired from his job teaching at a Catholic school which discriminates against same-sex marriages. Unable to afford their rent, the couple must stay in separate apartments with friends while they search for more affordable accommodation.

Ira Sachs (Keep The Lights On, Forty Shades Of Blue) has stated that his intention with this film was to make a film capturing the feeling of a well-worn love tried and tested over the decades, and that’s certainly the sense with Ben and George. Both Lithgow and Molina seem utterly at home in the skins of these men; you never feel you’re watching an actor’s showcase.

In a marketplace under populated with stories about older gay people, Love Is Strange stands out. It’s even more unusual for not relegating LGBT characters to the role of witty sidekick or tragic cautionary tale. It is, however, fair to say that the narrative could possibly have used a little more in the way of dramatic momentum. These characters are so balanced, so sane and so sweet that Love Is Strange occasionally serves as a reminder of why so many films do choose to focus on more turbulent events. Nevertheless, this is an effectively performed and affectionately observed character piece with its heart firmly in the right place.