Sleep Furiously (Gideon Koppel, 2008)

Gideon Koppel’s first feature is set in the remote Welsh farming community where he spent most of his childhood and teenage years. His parents were German Jews who escaped the Nazi’s and fled to a new life in the United Kingdom; settling in Liverpool, they eventually bought a smallholding in the district of Trefeurig in Wales, a community which once traded on its lead and silver mines.

Koppel’s film patiently and eloquently observes the locals as they go about their daily business, over the course of twelve months. There is no voice-over narration, just beautifully composed images that quietly document these villagers’ quite busy lives. Koppel uses the loose framing device of a mobile Library van, which travels the county, to act as a metaphorical container for the stories of the villagers; but it also provides a welcome and much-needed social hub, around which the local community congregates. The scenes featuring the van are among the most enjoyable in the film, as they unhurriedly document the easy, natural relationship the locals have with the knowledgable Librarian, as well as with each other and the books themselves. For a remote community, these locals enjoy a full and well-rounded cultural life; taking in choral recitals and choir practice as well as getting through an impressive monthly supply of books.

Koppel has said that he didn’t set out to make a documentary, and certainly one could argue that as soon as a scene is framed in a certain way, or certain decisions are made to present an image in a particular way, one is creating fiction. Sleep Furiously doesn’t act as documentary; it doesn’t isolate or focus on any one character, or set of characters, as conventional documentary features are wont to do. Instead it matter of factly presents people (without identifying them) going about their daily activities – tilling the land, shearing sheep, mending fence-posts. In doing that, it says more about this particular farming community, and disappearing ways of living, than any number of well-meaning polemical documentaries.  No-one speaks directly to camera, or even seems to be aware that it is there, and there is real craft and great art in what this first-time director has created.

Men at work - a scene from Sleep Furiously

It shares a sensibility with Ken Wardrop’s His & Hers, and with the acclaimed Italian feature from last year,Le Quattro Volte, which caused critics everywhere to fall over themselves and each other, dragging out every superlative in the book. Yet, that latter film, while enjoyable, didn’t move me in any real way; instead of being artful, it was too full of artifice and premised on a pretentious philosophical idea which for me, didn’t really work. In contrast, Sleep Furiously feels like truer art, and is truly artful.

It was described by the critic and film-maker Mark Cousins as “pure cinema”, and it most certainly is that. Its images are beautifully and carefully composed; the community are presented sympathetically, the music (mostly by Aphex Twin) is well chosen and the sound design is impeccable. The effect of time passing is shown simply in the changing of the seasons; space is created for the audience to think for themselves and fill in any blanks; there is no telling, only showing.

Like its title (taken from a quote by Noam Chomsky) Sleep Furiously is poetic and elliptical. It is a wonderfully moving, life-affirming film of great humility and deserves to be seen.

Sleep Furiously is now available on DVD.

Watch the trailer:

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The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

Well it’s been a hectic time over at focuspullr HQ of late, what with other commitments and illness keeping me away from the blogosphere, though I’ve still managed to see a few movies. Highlights of recent viewings have been Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and the subject of this post, George Clooney’s The Ides of March.

Taking his title from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, signalling political intrigue and backstabbing, Clooney marshalls a superb ensemble cast for the second overtly political film of his career, after Good Night, And Good Luck. He stars as Mike Morris, a liberal, handsome governor of Pennsylvania, competing in the Democratic Primary elections, and aiming for the office of U.S. President. Heading up his campaign team is seasoned veteran Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) aided by hot new kid on the political block, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling).

Meyers is youthful, sharp and politically astute; hitting all the right buttons with his campaign speeches for the governor, and quietly confident that Morris is the man for the White House job. However, his ill-advised decision to attend a meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for a rival Democratic Candidate, puts him in a compromising position with his employer and unwittingly leads to him becoming tangled up in a complex political web also involving the governor and a beautiful young intern, played by Evan Rachel Wood.

American Stars and Bars - George Clooney in The Ides of March

Though it lacks the serious analytical depth and complexity of 70s political drama’s such as All The President’s Men or The Candidate, which it calls to mind, The Ides of March soon turns into a cracking political thriller. Clooney and his co-writers Grant Heslov (who also worked with Clooney on Good Night and Good Luck) and Beau Willimon (on whose play, Farragut North, the film is based) keep a firm grip on the narrative tension as the backstabbing, bluffing and double-crossings gather pace. Gosling is excellent as the initially idealistic Meyers, who soon discovers that a career in politics is, in fact, not at all based on old-fashioned beliefs and ideals, but rather on who can best manipulate the state of play to his own ends. He is ably assisted by both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, both heavy hitters in their own right, who bring great intelligence and subtlety to their respective supporting roles. Clooney also deserves a mention as the handsome, clean-cut governor, with a dangerous skeleton lurking in his campaign locker.

The 1970s feel of the film is apparent in the martial drumming which plays over the opening credits, and in the plain white lettering of the title, as well as in Clooney’s assured, non-showy direction. While he mostly lets the story do the talking, he also knows how to build visual suspense. The scene where Morris calls Seymour Hoffman’s character over to his jeep and leaves us and the camera outside is skilfull and unexpected. Clooney keeps the focus squarely on the character-driven narrative, which progresses logically, is always believable and concludes that even the most high-minded and morally robust of men can lay ideals aside to protect and further themselves, in pursuit of their own ambitions.

The Ides of March is on general release now.

Watch the trailer

The Best Fictional Bands in Films?

A major hit of nostalgia was shot into my brain recently when I read that Breaking Glass (Brian Gibson, 1980) is to get a DVD release this month, 31 years after it was first released in September 1980.  31 years? Crikey, I saw this in the cinema when it first came out!! Yikes. All the songs played in the film by the fictional rock star, Kate and her band Breaking Glass, were mainly written by the film’s star, Hazel O’ Connor. I was getting seriously interested in music at this point (well, mostly Bowie and The Police) so I lapped up anything and everything going. I even bought a few Hazel O’ Connor singles on the back of the film’s release! Oh well, I was young and easily impressed. It would be fun to see the film again now though.

Anyway, it got me thinking – and this is the perfect idea for a Friday post –

Who are the best fictional bands/artists you’ve seen in films?

I have listed the my choice of films below, with links, in no particular order. I’ll kick off with Hazel, for old time’s sake.

Who have I missed and who would you include?

1. Breaking Glass – Hazel O’ Connor plays Kate, who with her band, Breaking Glass, achieves the fame she’s always craved, but at what cost? Was Lady GaGa even born when this came out? Here’s Eighth Day –  

2. Grace Of My Heart – Alison Anders’ wonderful film from 1996, loosely based on the life and work of Carole King. The soundtrack features some heavy-hitting songwriters, such as Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, who provided this superbly crafted period song for Denise Waverly (Illeana Douglas) to perform –

3. That Thing You Do! – Also from 1996, Tom Hanks’ directorial debut charting the rise and fall of Beatles-style Beat Combo, The Wonders. This is their big hit! Great film too.

4.  That’ll Be The Day / Stardust – Well ok, I’ve snuck in two films here; but they go hand in hand, as they chronicle the life and times of fictional superstar Jim McClaine (David Essex) and his band, The Stray Cats. With great star turns from Ringo Starr (That’ll Be The Day) and Adam Faith (Stardust). Allied to Essex’s own real Star charisma, these are two of the best films there are about the Business of the thing we call Show. Watch out for turns from Keith Moon and Dave Edmunds as band members –

5. The School of Rock – Ok dudes, I’m going to finish on a real face melter. I absolutely love The School of Rock (2003). Directed by Richard Linklater, it stars Jack Black as failed musician Dewey Finn, who seizes one last chance at the big time by impersonating his teacher friend Ned Schneebly, and turning his class into a kick-ass, hard rockin outfit so that he can take part in a school’s Battle of the Bands competition, to get revenge on the band who dumped him. It’s top class from start to finish. Here’s the band in action, and remember, you’re not hardcore until you live hardcore! – Happy Weekend! 

Thanks to suggestions from commenters, I’m adding a few more bands to the list.

7. The Committments – Alan Parker’s film of Roddy Doyle’s hilarious novel about the titular Dublin Soul band was a huge success. Here’s a tune from it –

8. This is Spinal Tap – A classic –

9. O Brother, Where Art Thou? – How I could have forgotten The Soggy Bottom Boys from The Coen Brothers’ wonderful movie, I’ll never know.

10. Star Wars – The Cantina Band from George Lucas’ Star Wars seem to have a huge online following! Thanks to Ronan for pointing this one out to me – I can’t find a clip from the movie, but this is the tune they play in the Cantina scene.  

Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)

Ben Wheatley shot his first feature, Down Terrace (2009) in just eight days and on a ridiculously modest budget somewhere in the region of £6,000 (the actors deferred their wages until the film eventually made some money back).  He used real locations, such as the house of a friend’s father, who he also had star in the film. The film went on to win the Raindance Award at the British Independent Film Awards in 2009, and Wheatley was awarded a Best Newcomer prize by the Evening Standard British Film Awards in 2010.

With Kill List, the budget has improved but Wheatley’s modus operandi has remained much the same. He still uses real, albeit fairly anonymous locations; ring roads, petrol stations, lock-ups, suburban housing estates – these are the areas his desultory characters inhabit. But lest you think Wheatley is yet another British director fashioning some kind of social-realist aesthetic, think again – his filmic territory is more like Ken Loach meets John Carpenter.

Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) are two best friends and former Army buddies. Jay is back in England following his last mission in Iraq, and is having real problems settling back into suburban married life with his Swedish-born wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring) and their son Sam (Harry Simpson). In an attempt to help his mate out, and get him back into the world of work, Gal proposes Jay joins him in some lucrative work, as contract killers for the shady Client (Struan Rodger). The Client provides the two pals with their “kill list” and a suitcase full of money, and soon the pair are on the road, glad to be working together again.

What makes Kill List so unsettling is that Wheatley grounds these characters in everyday reality. During a fraught dinner party with Gal and new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), for example, talk turns to the recession, to lack of money, and we understand that these people are just trying to get by like everyone else. Fiona works in Human Resources, essentially firing people for a living. Both Jay and Gal have their problems-and Jay in particular seems to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – but nothing that a nice bit of work can’t sort out. The difference is that Jay and Gal kill people for a living. What’s more unsettling is that Jay’s wife Shel knows what he does, is complicit in his actions, and nags him about not working; as if he were simply an unemployed plumber going through a bad stretch.

What starts as a realist drama about two hitmen going about their business then suddenly takes some very unexpected turns. Gal’s girlfriend Fiona carves a Hex-style emblem into the back of Jay and Shel’s bathroom mirror. Is she putting a spell on the house, on Jay and Shel? Later, she turns up unexpectedly at Shel’s when Jay and Gal are away working, and tells Shel she’s waiting, but waiting for what? Meanwhile, on the road, Jay is becoming increasingly unhinged, as his previous professionalism on the job gives way to out-and-out violence and brutality.

Wheatley shifts the focus of the film, in its 2nd half, to a very British type of horror.  Calling to mind Brit-Horror classic The Wicker Man, Jay and Gal encounter a weird late-night torch-lit procession going on down in the woods; and when they erroneously intervene, they are chased by the mask wearing mob, complete with flaming torches and knifes. The film then proceeds to a bizarre and unsettling finale that leaves more questions than answers. Wheatley doesn’t favour exposition, so don’t expect much in the way of explanation or a tidy resolution to the story. Like the spooky soundscapes and jerky jump-cuts he employs throughout, this is a film-maker who is out to undermine and wrong foot the audience’s expectations at every turn, but who never talks down to them.

You are left to make of Kill List what you will. I can’t say that I fully understood what the hell was going on by the end of the film, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterwards.

Kill List is on general release now.

You can watch the trailer here