Sunday 26 February 2017

North La La Land

Howdy from California! So here I am in the San Francisco Bay Area, overlooking the famous
bay and San Francisco itself, while wearing my Borderlines Film Festival t-shirt kindly sent from Hereford, 5242 miles away! This is my third year of writing for the festival, but I haven't always been a "foreign correspondent". Back when I proudly lived in Hereford, I remember the old Ritz cinema  only seemed to show films at weekends, and mostly blockbuster fare, and then The Courtyard Arts Centre opened in 1998, bestowing a new source of independent cinema upon the local cinephiles. Unfortunately, I left Hereford just before Borderlines Film Festival began, or else I'm sure I would have been keenly involved from the get-go. A few relocations later and now I am settled in the sunshine state, where cinema was born.

Where multiscreen cinemas are now the norm in the UK (indeed, my home town had Europe's first multiplex), many neighbourhoods here within the various Bay Area cities have their own independent "movie theater". My local cinema is an opulent art deco building that somehow survived the 1989 earthquake and a modern renovation. The next closest cinema has a Wurlitzer organ ascend from its main auditorium’s stage, as if to play-in the evening's films. Across the Bay Area, and California itself, these old local cinemas are often downtown focal points, somewhat mirroring the local demographic in their film programming.

I think this local investment in, at times, quite esoteric independent and international films is a positive knock-on effect of being in relative proximity to Hollywood. It may be sunny all year round down in Los Angeles, but here in Northern California there is less sheen, perhaps a holdover from the gold rush pioneers who braved the Sierra Nevada mountains to settle amongst the redwoods of the Pacific northwest. I like to imagine them imbuing the Bay Area with a progressive attitude that lives on in the creative industries, as we have so many film production luminaries based locally, including Pixar, Industrial Light & Magic, and Lucasfilm. Living close to such a breadth of cinematic expertise is certainly a privilege, and Hereford and its surrounding countryside is lucky to have the equally pioneering Borderlines.

In recent months I've been fortunate to see films as diverse as Check It, Jackie, and Moonlight all in local independent cinemas that proudly screened them as part of film festivals (such as Frameline, or tangentially to the typically more mainstream Hollywood movies. It feels almost meta to have grown up with the first multiplex blockbusters in the middle of the UK, to living where scores of those movies were produced and filmed. There's certainly something uncanny about attending to one's daily business, only to recognise a hilly vista from Vertigo, or noticing that the latest Godzilla wasn't actually shot by the Golden Gate Bridge after all. 

So, leading up to the 89th Academy Awards ceremony this Sunday, celebrating what I would humbly say is a year of especially outstanding cinema, it dawns on me that I will do as I often have since falling in love with film in Hereford and look forward to the glitz of it all - except now from within the same time zone as Hollywood! Surreal. Hopefully there'll be some colourful wins this year. Now all I need to decide is whether to watch the Oscars on television from the comfort of home, or screening live down the block at the independent art deco flicks, here in North La La Land...

Duncan Wardlaw

Saturday 25 February 2017

Coming Soon to a Peripatetic Projector Near You: Part 1

I’ve seen a few of Flicks in the Sticks picks in the past year. I looked forward to Hell or High Water (Dir. David Mackenzie, US, 2016) – currently nominated for 4 Oscars. There was a steady stream of independent films from America’s dark heart a quarter-century ago – the American outback, big blue skies, black humour, determined criminals and jaded detectives: Red Rock West (1993), The Last Seduction (1994), To Die For (1995). Some of them starred Jeff Bridges: American Heart (1992). He’s on top Jeff Bridges form here – playing a less sympathetic character than, say, his country music performer in Crazy Heart (2009). I don’t recall any genre business involving a soft drinks vending machine but the comic relief cameo in an eatery was good work.

We’re in present-day Texas. (It was filmed in New Mexico.) Bridges first came to attention in The Last Picture Show (1971), summarised online as: “In 1951, a group of high schoolers come of age in a bleak, isolated, atrophied West Texas town that is slowly dying, both culturally and economically.” Those characters would be in their 80s today and, if they had an opportunity, no longer living in West Texas. Hell or High Water focuses on two brothers in their 40s (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) robbing a chain of banks they believe is robbing them, whilst two Texan Rangers (Bridges and Gil Birmingham) visit various ghost towns in pursuit. It’s not 1951 and there’s not much for anyone to look forward to.

Gil Birmingham is a Comanche actor. I was delighted to see a realistic role for a Native American in an American small town movie. I have been introduced to the short stories of Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) and Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) in the past year. There are many tribes but it doesn’t take too much effort to get it right. Not that Jeff Bridges’ character cares about that. Soundtrack by Nick Cave and The Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis. It’s all good.

There is a fascinating work of 1936 British science fiction / modern art called Things to Come – produced by Alexander Korda, directed by William Cameron Menzies, written by H. G. Wells, starring Ralph Richardson. It predicted a 30-year war 5 years after it was made. Three years later Menzies was directing sequences in Gone with the Wind. This has nothing to do with Things to Come (Dir. Mia Hanson-Løve, France/Germany, 2016). I saw Isabelle Huppert advertised on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as “The French Meryl Streep”: some people adore everything she does. Huppert has been extremely productive recently: 8 movies in the past 2 years with another 6 in production. These range from as-silly-as-you-make-it Valley of Love, opposite a barrel-gutted Gérard Depardieu sweating buckets in Death Valley, an estranged couple reunited by their son’s final wishes, to Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s much-anticipated latest, to Souvenir, where she plays the (fictional) runner-up in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. Many of those film critics who got to see Elle during 2016 put it in their Top Ten of the year.

Watching Violette (2013), the bio-pic of French writer Violette Leduc, where the audience is invited to give itself a point for every one of her friends they’ve heard of, I identified the three act structure of several, recent, women’s movies depuis la France. Act One – great personal misery. Act Two – great personal achievements. Act Three – walking holiday in a place of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Huppert’s character’s circumstances alter and, after a mis-step or two, she responds to new challenges. Will she adapt to changing times? This is the plot of most dramas. Does it tell us much about present-day France, the careers and relationships of women approaching retirement age, family life or current trends in philosophy and publishing? I don’t think so. Is Huppert very watchable for 100 minutes? As ever.

Talking of communes: Captain Fantastic (Dir. Matt Ross, US, 2016). And I’m sure this American family would relish a debate with the French anarchists from Things to Come. It stars George MacKay as Viggo Mortensen’s character’s eldest son. You may remember MacKay from Pride (2014) – he was the shy, young man with the camera. He was 21 in that; he’s 19 in this. In the British movie he’s required to drink pints of beer in various clubs. In Hollywood he climbs a cliff, plays acoustic guitar to a solid standard, delivers long speeches involving political theory like he understands their differences and carries off a very demanding yoga routine. He’s ripped. He’s good. I hope he gets a big role now he’s made the ‘eligible virgin in a mini-bus’ part his own. Can Eddie Redmayne OBE kill a stag?

In a year of thin (English language) movies Captain Fantastic offers plenty to cogitate. A society of six people isn’t big enough to find solutions for every disagreement. It keeps credible: serving wine to children; reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus to a six-year old; replacing Christmas with Noam Chomsky Day. Haven’t we all. And the movie side-steps a number of blind alleys: it could have taken the ‘fish out of water’ or the ‘brainwashed cult’ route. There’s a nod to convention and it moves on. It’s not Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) – and The Courtyard must have sold a lot of stiff drinks that day. I’ve never seen a cinema empty so fast. It’s not Little Miss Sunshine (2006) either, whatever its trailer suggests – but there are several genuine laughs. Given that three generations challenge one another’s value systems, from positions of near incomprehension, there’s even a late-1960s, early-1970s counter-culture movie vibe. I predict, given recent events in America, that we will get more movies like this. I hope so.

Another family breakdown, another commune: Julieta (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2016). It interweaves three Alice Munro short stories featuring the same eponymous character, played by Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, at different points in her life. I had an Almodóvar season of my own when this was released – so excuse me whilst I work out which bits belong to which Almodóvar. No extremely extrovert gay men in this one. The actors aren’t told to play it like a Spanish-speaking soap opera. His previous movie I’m So Excited! (2013) featured no subtlety whatsoever. That experiment must have refreshed him because, in part, Julieta explores the understated grief and guilt of an abandoned mother. Almodóvar loves his female characters best when they demonstrate their emotional strength. The male characters tend to offer them the opportunity – but not violently this time. A rebuffed suitor abandons his ‘research’ into ‘accidentally’ seeing Julieta again because he’d noticed he was at risk of becoming a character from a Patricia Wentworth novel. I like a minor character that’s self-aware. If you don’t know Almodóvar’s work Julieta is a fine place to start. And if you do, get ready to soak it up.

Robin Clarke
Festival Volunteer

Friday 24 February 2017

Day 1, Year 15

Dateline: 15:30 hours 24 February 2017, The Courtyard, Hereford

A beautiful day and already we are four films in, Borderlines is rolling. 

The voting boxes are out, the post-its poised waiting for your input and feedback. 

Soy Cuba & Denial plus Alone in Berlin launch a radical, visually compelling and engaged programme which will now play in venues up and down the Marches. Old friends and acquaintances are sat in the dark relishing the return of a fortnight of movie going, new friends are already discovering the welcome and engagement this winter festival brings. In a season when we all long for Spring, the snowdrops have lit the green fuse, the birds are starting to sing and Borderlines is bringing excitement and entertainment to the rural year. 

It's great to be back.

Matthew Evans, one of the two official Borderlines photographers