Polanksi returns to the history books in new film ‘D’

•May 10, 2012 • Leave a Comment

10 years after his award-winning film The Pianist, director Roman Polanski returns to the history books with his new film D.

Picking up the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2002 with Adrian Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist who hid from the Nazis in war-torn Warsaw, Polanski once again casts the spotlight at anti-Semitism in Europe.

Roman Polanski

Yet to be filmed, D will follow the infamous l’Affaire Dreyfus. The Dreyfus affair was a political scandal that divided France in the 1890s and the early 1900s. Wrongly convicted for treason in November 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent was sentenced to life imprisonment. Accused of having communicated French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana and placed in solitary confinement, where he was to spend almost 5 years.

After the real culprit was discovered in 1896, efforts were made to cover up the scandal resulting in acclaimed writer Emile Zola writing an open letter to a major French newspaper. Entitled J’Accuse, the letter condemned the anti-Dreyfusards and demanded that the case be re-opened with Dreyfus returned to France and exonerated.

During a press conference today Polanski stated that the film will treat the subject more as a spy story than costume drama in order to  highlight the similarities between this period and our own today. According to the film maker, the Dreyfus Affair perfectly captures a witch-hunt against a minority, national security paranoia, secret military tribunals, government cover-ups and a frenzied press.

With production scheduled to start later this year in Paris, D will reunite novelist/screenwriter Robert Harris and Polanksi after the 2010 film The Ghost Writer.


Honoré’s Magical Musical Melodrama-Beloved out this Friday

•May 8, 2012 • 2 Comments

From Prague in the 60s, to Paris in the 70s; from London in the 90s to New York in the noughties, Christophe Honoré’s latest film Beloved (Les Bien Aimés) is a lyrical, musical epic of two women – mother and daughter Madeleine and Vera, and their search for love and stability with the various men who appear (and re-appear) in their lives. Starring real-life mother and daughter team Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni, Honoré’s film pays homage to Jacques Demy’s iconic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, with a nod to Nouvelle Vague giants Godard and Truffaut.

Paris, 1964. Madeleine (Sagnier) a young Parisian shop-girl steals a pair of shoes from her workplace and wears them on her way home. Mistaken for a prostitute, she meets the devilishly handsome Jaromil, a Czech doctor, whom she marries, has a child by and accompanies to Prague. But after Jaromil’s philandering results in the end of the marriage, Madeleine returns to Paris with their daughter, Vera.  Jaromil remains a presence in the both their lives however, continuing a sexual relationship with Madeleine even into her remarriage with a policeman. As Vera grows up (to be played by Mastroianni, as Denueve takes over from Sagnier as Madeleine), the film’s scope broadens further, following Vera as she travels to London, where she meets and falls for a gay American drummer, Henderson (Paul Schneider), whose inability to requite her affections is mirrored in the predicament of Vera’s ex, Clement (Garrel), who is still frustratedly in love with her.

Confused? It all sounds terribly complicated but Honoré successfully manages to steer clear of soap-opera antics or kitsch, mkaing it deeply moving. An original melodrama, the film reunites Honoré with talented composer Alex Beaupain (songwriter from Honoré’s earlier film, Les Chansons d’Amour). Many of the musical numbers are indeed fun and catchy; reflecting both the characters’ inner conversations and thoughts. Ici Londres sung by Mastroianni and Schneider and Sagnier’s opening song Je Peux Vivre Sans Toi being particularly strong.

However one does question how much more Beloved adds to the Honoré body of work ? Following his previous films Les Chansons d’Amour and Homme au Bain, one feels that the director is revisiting old, familiar ground – even to the point where one scene from Honoré’s last film Homme au Bain (a tender three-some between the film’s two gay lovers and Mastroianni) is recreated in Beloved.

Spanning monumental historical events from the 1968 Russian invasion in Czechoslovakia to the 2001 Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, Beloved is nonetheless an impressive, ambitious effort that doesn’t sag under the weight of its 150 minutes. Re-assembling Honoré favourites Sagnier, Garrel and Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve is a worthy addition to the film maker’s oeuvre; each one successfully navigating their way between spoken dialogue and songs. At times light and fluffy, brooding and despondent, this inspired film is a fascinating paean to the pursuit of love that mixes whimsy with tragedy, history and the contemporary.

Beloved(15) Les Bien Aimés

France 2011 Dir: Christophe Honoré 150mins In French with English subtitles

With: Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Ludivine Sagnier, Louis Garrel, Paul Schneider

Is it curtains for the Last Projectionist?

•May 4, 2012 • 3 Comments

With the June release of the timely documentary The Last Projectionist, many UK cinemas are asking themselves what is the future of British cinema exhibition and what it all means for cinema’s unsung hero, the projectionist.

Working unsocial hours and well-versed in the alchemy of film, never before has the role of the projectionist been under such scrutiny. As many cinemas (both multiplex and independents) battle with rising costs, increasing competition from video-on-demand and video piracy, UK cinemas are increasingly forced to cut costs wherever possible. As such, the humble projectionist finds himself battling in cinema’s frontline. Confronted with advances in digital cinema and fully automated auditoriums, what will become of cinema’s guardians as we enter a new digital era?  With a lifetime of experience behind them and having managed to navigate a way through the myriad developments in film over previous decades, is the future bleak for the projectionist?

10 years after the UK Film Council’s ground-breaking programme to introduce the best digital projectors to independent cinemas, the majority of UK cinemas now screen predominantly from digital cinema package (DCP) with over 90% of films screened digitally. Only repertory cinemas, with a comprehensive festival or archive programme, have kept their 35mm projectors.

Whilst the ‘making up’, ‘breaking down’ and projection of celluloid film once took a lifetime to master, ‘technicians’ (as many are now known) can learn the rudiments of screening digitally in an afternoon, less if you already have a general understanding of IT. Reduced to the role of ‘caretaker’, pushing an ON/OFF button on a machine, many feel nostalgic for the good old days of projection, as seen in the film Cinema Paradiso. But were they really good? Ask any lover of film about the quality of digital projection and all would agree that it is now higher than that offered by conventional celluloid print projection. With increased luminosity and the latest technology allowing greater focus, cinephiles can watch films with crystal clear definition. Gone too is the noisy roar of the 35mm projector that could often be heard in the auditorium during quieter moments of a film.

Of course the screening of a film can be as of equal importance to its making and as recently as 2009, director Quentin Tarantino stipulated that his film Inglourious Basterds be screened from 35mm print only. Likewise, older projectionists feel nostalgic about the tradition of passing on their knowledge and heritage to the younger generation; something negated with the arrival of digital technology. Veteran projectionists have taken this as their cue to retire, and as such, there has been a sizable change in the diversity of projection teams across the country with younger projectionists recruited and increasingly more women in the role; both of which are vital for the craft to thrive.

Whilst it is easy to romanticise the demise of 35mm, the cinema money-men remain sanguine as digital projection requires smaller spaces in which to work,  less training and a smaller workforce; in short, lower overheads.
Cheaper to produce and transport, DCP allows for a greater number of films to be screened and distributed; from urban metropolises to bucolic retreats, film fans can rejoice in the fact that their beloved (aka little-known) Czech masterpiece can be screened to dazzling effect at either London’s most hi-tech cinemas or at their rural film society with only a few weeks separating the date between the screenings. Similarly, live screenings of classics from the theatre and ballet world, direct to cinemas have all been facilitated with the arrival of digital cinema.

Without the need for a large projection booth and prohibitive costs, one hopes that this might mean a rise in smaller, ’boutique-style’ cinemas across the country, that are able to screen a more creative programme of mainstream and independent film.

With economics playing a large part in the digital revolution, it seems the role of the projectionist is changing. As hours and staff numbers are cut, one questions how levels of service and projection can be maintained. In a post 35mm world,  people will always be needed to ensure that the film is projected correctly, at the right time and on the right screen. Digital ‘live’ screenings also have their own demands and challenges which need to be addressed by cinema staff,  but as the mechanics of daily cinema presentation become more automated and the lines between the IT technician and projectionist are blurred, let’s hope that this does not mean ‘curtains’ for the projectionist. As Mark Kemode remarked  ‘A building without a projectionist is not a cinema, just a sweet shop with a video’ .

Is Beauty Only Skin Deep?

•May 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Beauty pageants? A sexist reminder of the past? An anachronism in a more tolerant, equal society? Or a rallying call to ‘sisterhood?’ With the aim of ‘celebrating black beauty’ Miss Black France, a controversial new beauty pageant took place in Paris last Saturday, coming at a time when issues of race and multiculturalism are particularly sensitive in France.

Created by journalist Frederic Royer and the organisers of Miss France, 18 contestants (aged between 18 to 28 years-old) battled it out on stage in front of a celebrity panel assembled from the world of fashion and music. All of African-Caribbean origin, the contest has divided opinion in France with the ceremony being picketed by protesters. In spite of the controversy, it was all-smiles and glitter inside the Salle Wagram as Mbathio Beye, a 21 year-old Senegalese marketing student was crowned winner.

Organisers of the event hoped to highlight the beauty of black women stating that ‘black women are not often seen in the media’ and maintained that if a white woman wanted to enter a future contest, she would not be refused entrance.

Royer continues “For some time I have noticed that the election of Miss France is not representative of today’s population. There are very few Blacks and if there are, they often come from the ‘departements d’outre-mer’ (France’s overseas territories in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean). They are rarely of African origin.  Although highly controversial Miss Black France is not the only competition of this type, others include Miss Black Beauty, Miss Afro Ethnic and Miss Senegal France.

With some far-right protesters demanding the creation of a Miss White France, many feel that the competition is indeed retrogressive and can only lead to the ‘ghettoisation’ of some ethnic minorities. Other more liberal commentators believe that the contest is as valid an event as Gay Pride.

CRAN (le Conseil representatif des associations noirs) – the Representative Council of Black Associations has backed the event as “it aims to promote black people…and highlights the presence of these young women, often ignored in France”. Its president Louis-Georges Tin goes on to say “The problem is not ghettoisation, but discrimination on the catwalks” and questions how and why these competitions can be organised in other countries without causing any problems.

Brenda a young woman of mixed heritage who entered the competition explained to the jury that black beauty is not appreciated in conventional beauty pageants.  Equally Dialika, a young woman of Senegalese origin, feels that Miss Black France is not just a beauty contest but also an act of ‘aesthetic activism’ in an age where black women with darker skin and natural hair are underrepresented.

Created in 1920 Miss France has only seen 5 black women crowned with the title (Veronique de Cruz-1993, Sonia Rolland-2000, Corinne Coman-2003, Cindy Fabre-2005 and Chloé Mortaud-2009).

Former president of the Miss France committee Genevieve de Fontenay defends the competition’s statistics. “We have always had black candidates”, adding that “given the competition is based on regional winners of places such as Miss Alsace, Miss Lorraine or Miss Brittany, it is not to be expected that half the contestants are black.” Unperturbed by the presence of Miss Black France, she sees it as ‘friendly competition’ and feels that any form of ethnic isolation is symptomatic of society, rather than the contest.

In the wake of Marine Le Pen’s recent success in the French presidential race (gaining 18% of French votes), the competition’s timing is particularly apt. As ethnic minorities fight to establish themselves in France’s current climate, events like Miss Black France seek to remind the establishment of their existence and right to remain ‘different’; a way of combatting against political indifference. However what place does ‘difference’ have in a society that espouses the virtues of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’; where secularism is written into the constitution and multiculturalism is taboo? Equally, can one really celebrate society’s acceptance of such competitions when the victory may well be double-edged? Although they can empower groups that are marginalised from the mainstream, they also only allow dialogue or give agency as a parallel ‘voice’ – forever trapped in the periphery.  As society becomes more global and means of communication allow for greater dialogue, is it not more important to celebrate the diversity of France and encourage and engender a more pluralistic view? Participants in the contest should not be made to feel ‘black’ in a French society but encouraged to feel ‘French’ – whatever their origins.

Whilst equality between the sexes continues to be fought in both the professional and domestic realm, we equally ought to question why we are still being subjected to such an outdated form of ‘entertainment.’ In previous centuries ‘beauty’ was one of the strongest attributes of a woman’s arsenal. Almost one hundred years after women received suffrage in the US, just how far have perceptions changed of viewing women as objects?

When Real becomes Reel…Have documentaries replaced print journalism?

•April 20, 2012 • 2 Comments

Robert Redford believes so. In the run-up to London hosting Redford’s influential Sundance Film Festival next week (with a very documentary-led programme at the O2 Centre), the veteran actor has stated that film has replaced the integrity and respect accorded to publications such as The Washington Post and Time Magazine.

Since the 1980s, documentary features have been steadily gaining in popularity with its apotheosis culminating with the release of Michael Moore’s Palme d’Or winner Fahrenheit 9/11, becoming the highest grossing documentary ever in 2004. The popularity of documentary film in the past ten years is partly due to the creation of production companies and distributors such as Tigerlily Films or Dogwoof Films, presenting films that simultaneously entertain audiences whilst investigating serious issues; issues that in the past might have been covered exclusively in investigative journalism. But what else explains the public’s growing fascination with documentary? Is it filling a critical need that journalism is no longer willing or able to meet? Has documentary film sounded the death knell for the quality journalism in the printed press?
With the Leveson Inquiry looking likely to continue well into 2013 and in light of the recent newspaper scandals, can the public ever trust the press again?
In an interview with the BBC, Redford states that the acclaimed film All the President’s Men came at a time when journalism had reached an ‘apex of morality and professionalism’. Sundance, launched in Utah by Redford in 1978, 2 years after the Watergate scandal broke, is a respected fixture on the cinema calendar where indie directors  such as Quentin Tarantino first made their name. Redford goes on to say that newspaper standards are in ‘steep decline’ and that their role has been replaced by the documentary. However with their longer production schedules, do documentaries lend themselves to more in-depth examination? Unlike the press with its pursuit of being the first to break a story, one could say film encourages freer discussion and enables filmmakers to tackle subjects that many governments or large corporations would rather hide? Equally with some national newspapers backed by or forming part of a large corporate conglomerate, many feel journalistic integrity is at odds with the papers’ backers, forcing them to bow to pressures of censorship.
Newspaper supporters would disagree and cite recent examples of ground breaking stories that have come to light exclusively through the press. The Guardian and its determined efforts to highlight News International’s involvement with the phone hacking scandal and corruption within the Metropolitan Police or The Sunday Times revelations regarding the ex-Tory treasurer Peter Cruddas and his boasts of being able to secure access to influential members of the cabinet, in exchange for large donations to the party. With time playing an important role in all these stories, the printed press still has the advantage of being able to uncover a story and publish it quicker than an aspiring director can shout “Lights. Camera. Action” or download the latest version of Final Cut Pro.
Equally, with film’s long chain of command – ranging from writer to director to producer to executive producer (not including distributors and sales agents), can a story remain truly objective and impartial without being subject to varying personal or financial constraints along the way?
In contrast to this, we are now witnessing the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ – stories generated and published through blogs and social media . As the internet and Twitter in particular become increasingly prevalent in our lives, many of us now use newspapers to verify what we have already recently read online. So does that mean that print journalism is to be relegated to a role of fact checker, with online media becoming the reference of choice? Recently tweeted hoaxes – such as the ‘deaths’ of Pedro Almodovar and R&B singer Usher, or the incorrect, ‘leaked’ list of Cannes competition films this year would indicate that we need to be more wary of what we read online.  A significant percentage of Americans still believe President Obama is a Muslim and that John McCain sired an African-American child, as a result of someone posting the stories online in 2008. In the democratic world of online journalism, whilst we can rejoice in the fact that previously ‘unheard’ or marginalised voices have been given agency, we must be aware that we may also be witnessing a rise in bogus stories, rendered ‘legitimate’ by merely being posted live. The role of the investigative journalist, with a curious mind and confident stance may now be more important than ever. With ever more increasing tools at our disposal for breaking news, we need to decide through whom and what we trust, as information reaches us faster than ever before. Navigating a way to successfully uncover the truth, print journalism needs to instruct and inform, allowing the consumer to separate and differentiate the hyperbole from the understated, the subjective from the impartial, the apocryphal from the factual.

Feeling Bookish? World Book Night – Mon 23 April 2012

•April 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

To Kill A Mocking Bird still tops the list for many as the most successful film adaptation of a novel. Indeed, to celebrate the film’s 50th year since release,  President Obama introduced a special screening of the iconic film on US cable television last week.

With World Book Night taking place on Mon 23 April, thousands of books will be given away in bookstores, arts centres, pubs and clubs across the UK. Screenwriters, in their pursuit for new ideas and storylines, have always plundered the bookshelf; something clearly reflected in the WBN shortlist this year. Ranging from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day to John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, many of the books have successfully been translated for the big screen.

Whilst Hollywood has a reputation for ruining countless classics, several filmmakers and actors have managed to achieve greatness with their film adaptations. Who can forget Kathy Bates’ performance as deranged ‘fan’ Annie Wilkes in the adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery or Javier Bardem’s Academy award-winning role in the Coen Brothers’ re-working of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men? Similarly, in light of the recent hits of the Harry Potter franchise, Twilight Saga, Lord of the Rings and most recently The Hunger Games, it is a lucrative trend that does not seem to be on the decline…

With Keira Knightley poised to don her corset in Anna Karenina and Carey Mulligan’s much-anticipated turn as Daisy in The Great Gatsby later this year, can the film ever surpass the book and what are your favourite book-to-screen adaptations?

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Rebranding Africa

•April 6, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Poverty, corruption, political unrest – such are the many images that are usually associated with Africa. However recent events may signify that a new chapter commences for the continent – particularly in its wealth of diversity and design.
With many designers this season taking inspiration from Africa – are we finally witnessing a creative renaissance between Europe and Africa – 2 continents whose history have been intrinsically intertwined for centuries?

Spring/Summer 2012 sees designers such as Christopher Bailey at Burberry heavily influenced by African fabrics and motifs. Equally, exclusive Italian menswear brand Woolrich Woolen Mills is similarly inspired by traditional wax-print fabrics, visible from Accra to Zanzibar and beyond. The trend is however not just limited to luxury brands. High street behemoth H&M reflected the trend too with their recent collaboration with Marni. Boasting record sales in NY, sharp-elbowed shoppers devoured rail upon rail of batik print and accessories.

On a recent visit to East Africa, Italian Vogue editor, Franca Sozzani visited designers, models and artists in Uganda and Kenya – showcasing artistic talent that rarely receives media attention in their respective countries, let alone Europe. Other designers from the African diaspora include Duro Olowu – whose Autumn-Winter 12/13 collection, recently shown in New York, was heralded as a triumph by Vogue.

However the revolution is not only affecting fashion. Ahead of the Nigerian/Ghanaian premiere of the Ozwald Boateng documentary,  A Man’s Story, the Saville Row tailor has also has been rewarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award at ARISE during Lagos Fashion Week. Nigeria’s iconic film industry Nollywood goes from strength-to-strength and is now the third largest in the world, generating over $250 million per year. Africa’s answer to the iPad, INYE was recently re-launched to wide acclaim and many economists believe that over the next decade Africa’s economic growth may well rival and overtake that of China and India.

With events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya still fresh in our minds, could this renewed interest herald an artistic African Spring for the continent, beckoning a new era? It seems the answer is yes, but unlike the ephemeral nature of fashion, let’s hope it lasts for more than just one season.