This is my new blog, thanks y’all. 

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This week I wrote a retrospective review of the modern French classic for Front Row Reviews. As it’s amongst my favourite films I was a bit daunted with how to do it justice, and not let my love of it sweep me away in a blind argument. It’s sad that I’ve seen it so many times that it has now become a little numb to me. I remember why I loved it and still do, but it will never be the same again. Too much exposure. Lesson learnt I suppose. If a film is great, never watch it again! Capture it forever, untainted.

Here we are then:

This week Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s massive box office success Amélie is re released, ten years on from when it first captured audiences. It won best film at the European Film awards, four César Awards (including Best Film and Best Director), two BAFTA Awards (including Best Original Screenplay), and was nominated for five Academy Awards.

Since, it has become the archetypal artsy French film for modern audiences. Avid art-house cinema fans may feel its huge commercial appeal nulls such artistic status somewhat. Perhaps it is both. So, what is it about this French art-house (or just plain commercial, whichever) film that so many have adored? What is it about it that has driven countless students to want Amelie’s weird, quirky hair cut and round Bambi eyes staring at them from their bedroom walls?

You all probably know the story of Amélie by now, but let us recap anyway. Amélie (Audrey Tautou) is an innocent, shy waitress who lives a sheltered life in Paris. She decides to change the world one step at a time, and distract from her loneliness, by doing weird and wonderful things for those around her. She becomes engrossed in little bizarre projects that succeed due to the dedication to detail she puts into them.

Then there’s the love part. She falls for Nico Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz, director of La Haine) a handsome stranger who works in a sex shop and collects abandoned strips from photo booths in his spare time. She arranges eccentric and carefully planned, dramatic stunts to display her affections, all the while being too shy to reveal her identity until the penultimate, romantic conclusion.

The film is a wonderfully enchanting work of magic realism. Its uniqueness is in the remarkable attention to detail that Jeunet excels in. At one point Amelie is sat in the cinema, and whispers directly to the camera that she likes to ‘notice the details that nobody else sees’. This is evidently true for the filmmaker too, and we are given a part in it. Amélie’s parents are introduced through their likes and dislikes, as other characters are throughout the film. It’s an unconventional way to paint them but is surprisingly insightful. They are carefully crafted with interesting and unique quirks, and it is the specifics that create individuality. Amélie’s father dislikes clingy swimming trunks but likes peeling wallpaper. Her mother dislikes touching the hands of others, but loves cleaning out her handbag. Amélie loves to crack crème brûlée with a spoon.

The film is a rich sensory experience. The contrasting colours are vivid, as is the feel of the sack of grains that Amélie likes to plunge her hand into, and the pruned fingers that her mother dislikes when in the bath. In one lovely scene Amélie helps a blind man cross the road whilst energetically chattering away specific observations from their surroundings. The film is delightfully surreal and not at all concerned with plausibility. It doesn’t try to do more than tinker on the edges of realism and it does so in an absurd, comic way. In the film’s opening there is a tramp that cheerily and politely refuses money to Amélie because he doesn’t work on Sundays, a suicidal goldfish that jumps out of its bowl, and a cat that likes to listen to children’s stories being told.

Despite being set in 1997, the Paris is not painted as modern day, but as one from fifty years ago. The quaint accordion music playing throughout is nostalgic and dream like. It’s a dream like, picture perfect creation comparable to the new Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris, where the French capital is drawn as a 1920’s ideal. Amélie’s omniscient narrator describes the characters, their feelings and the plot as it unfolds. It’s like being read a fairy tale, but one that includes a sex shop.

Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian wrote in 2001 that watching Amélie is like being ‘frogmarched into Maxim’s in Paris and forced to eat up the entire sweet trolley in 60 seconds’. I’ll try to not be bias here. It is admittedly saccharine, and not everybody has a sweet tooth. Amélie is an adorably sweet bohemian waif. Her do-good actions are sweet. The outcome is sweet. Yet this is the precise intention, and the film mischievously indulges in its sugary content.

Those who love Amélie do so because it does what films can often do best; provide escapism. But of course, here it is escapism of the surreal, poetic sort rather than the mindless type. It’s endearing in how it transports to a world that’s recognizably real yet equally magical. It fills with warmth. It does this whilst being sharply humoured and strikingly imaginative. If only a device exists,like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to erase the memory of a film in order to experience it fresh all over again. If you personally prefer a savoury treat, well then fair enough, let us agree to disagree.

Amélie is released on Blu-Ray 17 October

We Have A Pope Review

I managed to catch a tiny snippet of the London Film Festival, with this fairly disappointing Italian comedy. Alas, at least there’s the Leeds International Festival next month for us Northerners.

The BFI film festival presents ‘We Have a Pope’ (Habemus Papam). It is award winning director Nanni Moretti’s attempt to fuse together comedy and drama in a film that takes the mick a little out of the Catholic Church and the pope selection process. The combination doesn’t work and the film feels incomplete. It has been uncomfortably pulled in two directions.

Melville (Michel Piccoli), the newly elected Pope, is having a crisis. Following a panic attack just as he is due to appear on St Peter’s balcony to greet the faithful, he flees from the scene and tells his cardinals that he just cannot bring himself to do it. They are patient with him and hire atheist psychotherapist (played by Moretti) for help. The psychotherapist must be confined to the walls of the Vatican as the Pope’s identity has been exposed to him; juxtaposing his confinement and the freedom the Pope feels as he flees from his role. He hides his identity and wanders the city of Rome, visits the theatre to see Chekhov plays, and talks to himself whilst riding around on the bus.

The premise is interesting and unique. It boldly mocks the Catholic Church’s concern with image. The Pope’s escape is kept secret from the public and even his cardinals, appearances are kept as a guard dresses in white robes and frequently wanders past the bedroom window, shifting the curtain back and forth. In therapy he lies that he is an actor, but isn’t up to the challenge anymore. His descriptions of what he used to love about acting are really about his religious duties. I don’t think Moretti intends to stress an atheist standpoint or simply criticize Catholicism. The Pope is a surreal way to explore what can happen when faced with such intense responsibility and a role that no longer fits you, religious or otherwise.

The film is tragi-comic, yet the comedy is confused and its presence erases any potentially tragic elements. The humour is intended to be surreal and absurd. There is an unnecessarily long scene where the cardinals play a competitive ball game, looking incongruous in their full robes. Moretti is so preoccupied with showing the cardinals as ordinary men dressing up in an image that it feels forced. They are shown playing cards and indulging in extra strong tranquilizers, or suggesting trips to get doughnuts. It isn’t weird enough to be funny, but too loud and obvious to work as dry or subtle. With the serious element trying to break through, any comedy attempted should have been on the low side. The film would have been more moving and poignant if it had simply been a drama. Melville could have been further developed. He is likeable, but not wholly convincing as his need for escape is never fully explored. We know that he can’t ‘do it anymore’ and he feels ‘better’ when he is roaming free, but not a great deal more before the abrupt ending. His turmoil with his faith isn’t explored enough. What is on the verge of an interesting study is interrupted for awkward and repetitive comedy. Does Melville actually believe in God anymore? A key question one would have thought.

An imaginative idea has been wrongly blended. Surrealism and realism together are an ill fit, and unfortunately the result in an unfulfilling watch and a sense that something was sacrificed.


We Have A Pope is released in the UK 2nd December

Conflicting religious ideologies clash with dangerous results in this drama that sparks debate about whether strict rules and collective notions of worship should matter when an individual has faith. Eyad Zahra, the producer and director, has stated: ‘Spirituality is not an all or nothing game – it’s yours to make your own.’ The script is adapted from a novel of the same name by Michael Muhammad Night.

Bobby Naderi plays Yusuf, a prim, traditional Pakistani Muslim and engineering student who moves in with a group of Muslim punks; members of the ‘Taqwacore’ Muslim punk rock scene that exists solely on the West Coast. There is a vivid contrast between these ‘orthodox’ and ‘unorthodox’ ways to live as a Muslim and gradually Yusuf is opened up to new ways of approaching his religion. He begins to question elements of his faith as he examines his cultural identity from a wider perspective. The group use their grotty living space as an alternative mosque during the day, teaching each other through speeches and music, and host wild punk parties at night. It is an extreme way to live and show their faith, and many are strongly opposed to it. The penultimate scene, at a punk gig held at their home, ends in tragedy and some surprising vulgarity.

The undesired location (it is set in Buffalo, New Jersey, but had to be filmed in Cleveland, Ohio due to the low budget) means the film feels claustrophobic. Scenes are mostly confined to the grimy hovel where they reside and as the setting does not have much to offer, the camera gets too comfortable in close up shots, rarely moving far from its subject and providing little visual variety. Occasionally there are brief scenes shot in black and white – it seems to be an attempt to look more artistic – that show one of the punks asleep on a sofa with the light of a television reflecting on him. From the box-set we hear passionate patriotic American voices conveying their derogatory opinions about Islam. The punk either swears at the TV or continues sleeping, and it is intended to manifest their otherness, their inevitable dismissal of the country that rejects them. They must construct an exclusive home, as their punk group leader, Jehangir (Dominic Rains), candidly puts it: ‘we’re the ones that are always excluded and afraid to be ourselves’.

It is interesting that the film represents a counter cultural musical movement that has recently graduated from fiction to a reality triggered by the 2002 novel. Yet the film was just not. The direction was stale. The stock, stereotypical characters were one dimensional and appeared to exist solely to have a place within the web of conflict (particularly the homosexual Muslim Muzzamil, complete with fishnet tights and a face plastered in colourful make up, played by Tony Yalda ) and the acting was disappointingly wooden, not that the actors had much to work with as the screenplay was predictably obvious and uninspired. The film failed to entice as the anger and passion that is so integral to the narrative was poorly conveyed. It’s a pity, as the intrinsic subject matter had potential to be powerful.


The Taqwacores is released on DVD in the UK on the 24th October.

Pierre Salvadori brought us romcom Priceless back in 2006, a frivolous and tacky yet indulgent guilty pleasure that brought smiles and the pleasant escapist feeling induced by any film that has done the genre any justice. Salvadori is reunited with Tautou in Beautiful Lies; a tedious affair that bares none of its predecessor’s charm.

Handsome handyman Jean, who also happens to be a multilingual Harvard graduate, becomes enamoured with his boss Emelie, a hairdresser who runs her own salon in a quaint French seaside town. (Tautou) He writes her an anonymous love letter which she dismisses immediately and chucks in the bin, oblivious to its author. She retrieves it and decides to copy it to send anonymously to her mother, (Nathalie Baye), a deluded woman still pining for her husband after a four year separation.

The logic is that the letter will revive her and give her new found confidence and a zest for life. Of course it all gets drastically out of hand. Maddy becomes depressed when the letters stop and Emelie begins to forge them herself. This should seem like a nice idea with the best intentions and strongly mirrors Tautou’s do-gooder letter forging in Amelie, but it has none of its sweetness or charm as Emelie is so selfish and unlikeable. She doesn’t write the letters with grace, but with an air of annoyance and irritation that she carries around with her throughout the film.

Maddy then mistakes Jean for her admirer and strives to seduce him. A series of uninspired and gruesomely unfunny situational comedy ensues and plenty of mother and daughter rivalry. The plot line is never fun to begin with, and is stretched thinly beyond its limits, lugging along until it is just bland and tiresome. Romcom narratives are hardly expected to a fascinating work of genius but the protagonists should at least be appealing.

It is a pity, as Tatuou is usually adorable, yet even she and her cute pixie hairdo cannot make Emelie at all enchanting. It isn’t evident what Maddy is supposed to be, perhaps an eccentric middle-aged beauty the audience should sympathise with, but she is just plain unhinged and erratic to the point of exasperation. The only real highlight was the cool reggae soundtrack. Tautou’s ever changing wardrobe in Priceless was more engrossing than this forgettable comedy. Such a recurrent and popular genre demands imagination, and hopefully Beautiful Lies doesn’t signify its impending death.


Treacle Jr Review

Filmmaker Jamie Thraves’ made his debut feature ‘The Low Down’ in 2000. It  starred Aiden Gillen (The Wire, Queer as Folk) and was rendered by The Observer to be amongst the “neglected masterpieces” of film history in its rundown of 50 Lost Movie Classics.

Now Thraves and Gillen are reunited in Treacle JR, a low budget (the film only cost £30k to make, and Thraves remortgaged his home) and low key British film that manages to shock, move and amuse. It’s a blend of subtle observational comedy and powerful, uncompromising drama.

Tom (Tom Fisher) is a middle class architect living in Birmingham with his wife and baby son, and for reasons undeclared, decides to secretly abandon his life one morning. He boards a train to London, throws his phone into a lake, sleeps rough and spends solitary time wandering through parks. Following injuries from an encounter with a mob of violent youths, he meets Aiden (Gillen), an eccentric and erratic chatterbox with learning difficulties and a genial, child-like nature. Aiden is so oblivious to Tom’s clear disinterest and reluctance to talk that Tom fails to escape his clutches and eventually a friendship of sorts develops.

The strangeness of the friendship and the severe differences between the two characters tests the capacity for strangers to care for one another. Aiden and Tom also juxtapose different ways of approaching the world. Aiden has nothing and nobody. He lives in a boxy flat with an abusive pseudo ‘girlfriend’ named Linda (Riann Steele). He strives, and often fails, to make ends meet by doing odd jobs (such as chopping garden hedges with small scissors) and is frequently physically or verbally attacked by those he attempts to communicate with.

It is sad to endure his misfortunes, but his resilience is touching. Aiden never expresses anger, is always forgiving, and believes in the good within people however naïve people however naïve a view this may be. His relentless optimism has him convinced his one man drum band will lead to fame. Conversely, Tom has a seemingly comfortable home life but is suffering from a destructible sadness. He is affected by Aiden and benefits from their friendship, a communication that manages to be tender hearted without touching on sentimentality.

Treacle JR represents the daily reality of those that have an urge to abandon their identity and walk out on their lives in a quest for peace and solitude. Thraves uses the uneasy hand-held camera and bleak, gritty South-East London locations to twist the romanticised notion of a new beginning into one that looks eerily and darkly realistic. The strength of Gillen’s performance makes him a challenge to watch and Fisher’s understated performance appropriately compliments the ultimately unknowable character he depicts.


Treacle Jr was released in UK cinemas on 15 July 2011

A Seperation Review

A Separation is an utterly captivating, moving and impassioned drama that has added to critically acclaimed writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s growing abundance of awards. It won him the Golden Bear for best film at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival, (the first Iranian film to do so), the Silver Bears for Best Actress and Best Actor, and the Sydney Film Prize.

The complex plot commences with middle-class married couple, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Ma’adi) disputing with a lawyer about their desired divorce. Simin wishes to leave Iran with their 11 year old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to search for better opportunities. Yet Nader wishes, or feels he must, remain and care for his father who has Alzheimers disease. The magistrate remains unseen as the couple dispute towards the camera and the viewer is launched into their difficult dilemma. Both sides of the story are displayed alongside each other with no bias at all. Viewers can judge for themselves the first of many agonizing moral dilemmas that will be presented throughout. The urgency in Simin’s voice, and Nader’s clear frustration that his wife cannot see the undeniable responsibility that he must take on, mean their plight is emphatically understood. The hurried and hasty dialogue make for an incredibly gripping opening, and after a matter of minutes the magistrate deems their problem too petty and a divorce is denied.

The couple decide to separate and Simin moves in with her mother. Despite the melancholic atmosphere there are gleams of acutely observed humour. Nader approaches the alien washing machine for the first time, perplexed, and tells his daughter he has no idea what setting to use. She looks away from her homework and nonchalantly replies ‘setting 4. It is faded around that area, so has obviously been used the most’. It is a subtle commentary on female domesticity, and the film frequently explores and debates gender roles in contemporary Iranian society.

Further drama ensues when Nader has to hire Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a stranger from a poor area who has been discovered through connections, to care for his senile Father during the day. Her demanding tasks are excruciating to watch as the elderly man steadily declines. He has become incontinent and Razieh rings a religious helpline to ask if she can clean him. The situation gives a fascinating insight into the demands of her religion and her dedication to her beliefs. Her small daughter, who she must take with her everyday, adds a tender and amusing touch as she tries to help by saying she ‘won’t tell daddy’ what Razieh has to do. This stage of the film is slower and less dramatic than others yet never ceases to be as thoroughly engrossing. The acting is so convincing and the situations so emphatic, the viewer is never allowed off the hook.

Razieh is hiding a secret from Nader, and is also keeping the fact that she is working for him from her destitute, hot-tempered husband. The situation for those involved can only become progressively worse and an argument over pay results in an incident that intertwines their lives, and the law, together with harrowing and painful consequences. What unfolds is relentlessly challenging viewing, the hand held camera and shallow filming is unsettling and intensifies the character’s claustrophobia in their close involvement with one another. Despite the constancy of the drama, A Separation never touches on tediousness or feels theatrical for a moment. The difficult and disconcerting viewing is so absorbing the film feels a privilege to watch.