Film in Detail
A deeper look at the films that matter - and more fantastic movies you might enjoy too.
Find out more about a new collection of amazing British documentaries about the extraordinary habits of ordinary people.
Marc Isaacs has a great skill which may sound simple but isn't - the subjects of his quirky, fascinating documentaries always trust him. Born in London's East End, he initially worked as an Assistant Producer on documentary films in the mid-90s before assisting the thoughtful Polish director Pavel Pawlikowski on Twockers and Last Resort. Isaacs then branched out on his own and, in 2001, made Lift.
In this short documentary Isaacs places himself and his camera at the back of a lift in a high-rise council block and either observes or gently interacts with the residents as they come and go. The result is never dull and always touching. We meet an eccentric Jewish woman who moved into the block 26 years ago when it was "paradise"; a drunk young man talking about the "unlikely" jacuzzi and sauna in his flat who reappears several times to cheerily share his bad luck with women; an old man who asks an old lady if she's just had a perm; a young couple happy to perform to camera by protesting about the ubiquity of Starbucks and a young guy in baseball cap and hood off to see his "wifey".
There's a lovely moment when two old women simply say "it's disgusting" and we can only imagine the subject of their fury. At one point a resident kindly hands Isaacs a banana and, later, a cleaner mops his shoes as well as the lift floor. There are arty shots of the lift shaft which are straight out of a horror flick Lift is weird and wonderful and owes something to David Lynch.
Also in this collection are 2002's Travellers and 2003's Calais: The Last Border, which are equally moving and revealing. The former uses the idea of a train journey as a metaphor for life's journey as Isaacs travels across England and follows the stories of five passengers he has met spontaneously while the latter is as political as it is personal. Here he talks to refugees and migrants desperate to leave Calais for a new life in England and once again encourages them to open up.
Since making these short documentary films, Isaacs has become more ambitious and has made a succession of critically-acclaimed feature-length documentaries. Yet his determination to give a voice to invisible groups in England remains. His next project, due on BBC's Storyville in the autumn, explores the underclass of East London who live streets away from the capital's financial hub.
Alien invasions have long been embraced by the cinema-going public, who have taken to their hearts stories as diverse as ET, the Star Wars franchise and Independence Day. Such films usually scare us not only because of the unknown form of the aliens but also because we have absolutely no idea what they might do to us. But a question more rarely asked is what might we do to them?
South African director Neill Blomkamp addresses this issue in District 9, a challenging yet compulsive film set in South Africa. The story starts with a giant spacecraft hanging over the a sprawling modern city. The starving creatures discovered inside are put in a temporary refugee camp the District 9 of the title. Only the camp isn't so temporary: 20 years later, it's become an overpopulated ghetto, flooded with these odd creatures who are known, unkindly, as "prawns".
The creatures have effectively become scapegoats, stuck in their corner of the city, treated with suspicion, disrespect and aggression. In his first feature film, Blomkamp avoids clumsy, heavy-handed metaphors; there is no mention of apartheid or its aftermath nor any reference to the fact that this microcosm of life, divided in the most ugly way possible, is reflective of the wider world. Instead, with a modest budget of $30m, he has shot a solid B-movie bolstered with impressive special effects - no surprise, then, that Peter Jackson produced the film.
Blomkamp, who is just 30, thought very carefully about how to deal with the extremely tricky and sensitive subject of ethnic segregation. He decided, in the end, to be relatively ambiguous; he wanted the audience to make up their own minds about the way the creatures are treated, to ponder xenophobia and prejudice. Influenced by Alfonso Cuaron's superb Children of Men, Blomkamp has made a film that has a real, recognisable setting but a fantastical, surreal story - which makes it all the more disturbing. District 9 may be a visual feast, but it leaves you with a very uncomfortable feeling long after the film has ended. Life, it seems, is no longer as simple as it was on the all-American housing estate in ET.
What makes the Danish movie Festen (or "The Celebration") such an intense experience? You might think its plot alone - a Pandora's box of dark secrets being ripped open at a family gathering - was grim enough. However, the film also has the distinction of being the first movie released that obeyed the film-making "rules" of a group called Dogme 95 and this technique combines with the subject matter to take the movie the level of masterpiece.
Launched back in the 1990s, Dogme was the back-to-basics film movement based on ten technically stripped-down rules called The Vows of Chastity which include filming only on location and only in colour. They were drawn up in 1995 by Festen director Thomas Vinterberg and fellow Dane Lars von Trier to try and make film-making more democratic and free movies from what they saw as the unhealthy influence of Hollywood.
Filming on digital cameras, Vinterberg used the spartan style to ramp up almost unbearable tension. Family and friends gather at a country house to celebrate a smug patriarch's 60th birthday but as the daylight fades, so the mood darkens too, and hand-held cameras give proceedings a queasy, docudrama feel as the man's son makes a shocking revelation.
However, the film is anything but po-faced. Despite its confrontational and hard-hitting storyline, Festen is shot through with pitch-black humour an extreme comedy of complacent middle-class manners.
The film was an instant critical success, co-winning the Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, and its stripped down, incendiary style has been incredibly influential. But that influence hasn't been confined to the big-screen because the story was adapted for the theatre in London in 2004, with Festen the play being described as "the year's best" by The Guardian, and going on to be performed in countries as diverse as Greece, Mexico and South Africa.
And ironically, the establishment has now embraced the anti-establishment rebels of the Dogme 95. At the 21st European Film Awards in December last year, Vinterberg and Von Trier (along with Dogme brothers-in-arms Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, Kristian Levring) were handed the European Achievement in World Cinema award "in recognition of a unique impulse to the world of film and honouring their dedication to European filmmaking". We wonder how they celebrated...
On the surface the new cinema release Faintheart may not sound like the most revolutionary of movies. A likeable but lightweight British comedy, it tells the tale of an ordinary middle aged nerd doing an ordinary job who gets to act out his fantasies at weekends.
Because it's then that he joins a bunch of like-minded and some might say slightly sad! people, mostly men, to dress up and pose as a heroic soldier, taking part in recreations of ancient battles. This may bring some joy into his otherwise drab life, but he's certainly no hero to his family - his teenage son thinks he's a loser and his wife has pretty much lost faith in him. But is it too late to gain his son's respect and win back his wife's affections?
The result is enjoyable enough, although you may well find it more than faintly predictable. But what makes it interesting is not the story within the film but the story of how the film came to be in the first place.
Because the movie's producers had at least half an eye on the increasing role that the internet, through viral marketing and the word of mouth of social networking sites, had played in the success or otherwise of certain films. So they hooked up with the people at myspace and hatched a plan to create a film from scratch online.
A competition was launched on myspace, with ideas for films being "pitched" by users then a selection of the best was made, these contenders being gradually whittled down until the winner (which eventually became Faintheart) was selected. Even then contributions to the script from myspace users were welcomed. Once the screenplay was finished the cast was made up of established stars (including Jessica Hynes and Eddie Marsden) alongside newcomers to acting and again these were chosen from myspace subscribers.
Of course the perfect ending for a story about the making of a feel-good movie would be if the film itself turned out to be a triumph sadly, this time round that probably won't happen. The film is no disgrace, but it is unlikely to win over a mass audience and claim a bundle of Oscars. On the other hand, there's a chance it may represent at least part of the future in terms of how films are made and even more so, how they're publicised and sold to us.
When first-time writer/director Jamie Jay Johnson decided to follow four teenage acts as they prepare to take part in Junior Eurovision, the last thing he wanted his documentary to be was patronising and cynical. "The contest is more amateur and homemade than the adult version," he has said. "These kids, from tiny countries all over Europe, write their own songs. So the music is like a window into their lives. Here in the UK, the Eurovision Song Contest is a joke. But for them it's the musical event of the year."
Sounds Like Teen Spirit not only has a great title (borrowing from the Nirvana song, Smells Like Teen Spirit) but is also a heart-warming film. It lacks the usual teen angst portrayed in most coming-of-age films there are no drugs, guns, knives, unwanted pregnancies and instead focuses on the lighter side of growing up. Johnson may concede that Junior Eurovision is absurd and hilarious but he has no interest in mocking his subjects. Instead he chose to film the kids he liked and then let them be themselves on screen.
So we meet diverse acts from Georgia, Belgium, Bulgaria and Cyprus. There's 10-year-old Giorgios, the Cypriot contender, whose hero is George Michael. Giorgios, whose great voice is occasionally in danger of being overshadowed by his histrionics, sobs his heart out when he's voted in. Belgium meanwhile offers The Dalton Sisters, who appear in identical costumes and endlessly chant "We are the Dalton Sisters!" Their High School Musical approach lacks the charm of the other acts but their presence offers a welcome contrast.
This being the Eurovision, albeit the Junior one, there are voting anomalies galore and we are never quite sure who is going to win. As Johnson has gained the trust of the teenagers, we have intimate access to their emotional rollercoaster as the votes come in. In some ways it feels more like a feature film than a documentary, but what we see on screen is barely contrived. As Johnson himself says, Sounds Like Teen Spirit is simply "a celebration."
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