The Queen of Versailles

The Queen of Versailles tracks former IBM engineer and beauty queen Jackie Siegel and her life with husband David Siegel, owner of the world’s largest time share company. The two of them, with their eight children, lead a lavish life of private jets and giant houses. They rub shoulders with famous figures, and claim to hold political power (David Siegel takes responsibility for George Bush Juniors presidency though refuses to say how on the basis it may have been illegal).

As the film opens the family is proceeding with a plan to build a new family home. A home that will be the largest in the USA. Modelled on the palace of Versailles in France (but more closely resembling a Vegas casino) this will be a 90,000sq ft “complex” featuring three swimming pools, 10 kitchens, a 20 car garage, 30 bathrooms, a full sized baseball pitch, and a two storey wine cellar. Asked why they are building a house of this scale David Siegel can only say “because we can”.

This story alone would make for interesting look at noveau riche excesses and rampant inequality however the film takes a turn when the global financial crisis hits in 2008. David Siegel’s time share business is reliant upon cheap credit and sales to “sub-prime” borrowers (“If they’re breathing they’re buying”), especially following a large scale expansion into Las Vegas which has costs of $600 million. With the business pushed to the brink the Siegel’s get a taste of financial instability. The family fly on a commercial airline for the first time (“Mom, what are these people doing on our plane”) and hire a car while on holiday (“What’s the name of our driver… there’s no driver included?!”).

At the same time the film expands its focus to include the staff of the household, one of whom hasn’t been able to visit her own children in the Philippines for 20 years instead sending every cent back to help them, and a family friend who has also been hit by the GFC and now earns a living as a chauffeur. These additional perspectives help to place the problems the Siegel’s are facing in a clearer context and are moving in of themselves.

The film does well to straddle the line between comedy and drama. The Siegel’s could have been painted in a very unflattering manner but in the end I had at least some sympathy for all involved. Ultimately the families (wilful?) ignorance and lack of self-awareness casts a somewhat tragic light and one is left contemplating what it says about our culture that there lifestyle appears to be the one that many aspire to.

Director Lauren Greenfield was in attendance for this Sundance UK screening and held a Q and A afterwards. She explained that she met Jackie Siegel during a photo shoot for Donatella Versace. At the time Jackie was a million dollar a year customer of Versace. Greenfield photographed Jackie’s handbag (with others) and the photo went on to become a Time magazine photo of the year. Greenfield was struck by Jackie and felt she would be an interesting subject for a film.


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Sundance UK

In less than a month the Sundance Film Festival comes to London, the first time the festival has travelled outside of the United States where it is the largest festival for independent cinema in the world.

Many film makers including Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, and Darren Aronofsky, got their big breaks at Sundance.

The London festival is to run over four days featuring a selection of the best films from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, an exciting music line-up, and a series of panel discussions on the most pressing issues facing independent filmmakers on both sides of the pond.

All of the films look interesting and while I would like to catch up with all of them time and money has the final say. Therefore my Sundance London experience is going to be the following screenings.

The Queen of Versailles
Winner of the “U.S. Directing Award: Documentary” this documentary follows a billionaire couple who live in a 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by Versailles, built on the success of the time-share industry. I am expecting some insight into the excesses of the pre GFC property boom and some interesting characters.

Liberal Arts
A comedy-drama written, directed, and starring sitcom star Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) revolving around a college romance. Elizabeth Olsen co-stars and is reason enough to want to check out this film having been so good in last years Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Nobody Walks
Co-winner of the “U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing”, starring John Krasinski (of TVs The Office), and co-written by Lena Dunham who recently received much praise for her debut feature Tiny Furniture. I know very little about the film other than it is a relationship drama. The Krasinaki/Dunham names are what has me interested.

2 Days in New York
A follow up to 2 Days in Paris. Both films are written and directed by Julie Delpy, usually better known for her acting, and are comedy-dramas in the vein of Richard Linklater or Woody Allen more conversational works. Where Adam Goldberg played her partner in Paris we now have Chris Rock in New York which should make for an interesting dynamic.

The House I Live In
Winner of the “Grand Jury Prize: Documentary” this is latest from director Eugene Jarecki who made a fantastic doco a few years ago called Capturing the Firedmans. This film looks at the war on drugs, how the policies in place to criminalise drug use are impacting society. A difficult topic with a broad range of opinion. I am curious to see whether the film takes a clear position or presents a number of points of view.

Chasing Ice
Winner of the Excellence in “Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary” Chasing Ice follows National Geographic photographer James Balog as he attempts to capture climate change in action via time lapse photography. Balog’s videos are said to compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking rate.

A number of other films are to be screened in addition to panel discussions and musical acts. The full line up can be found on the Sundance London website.

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Real Steel – London Premiere

I was lucky enough to win tickets to the Real Steel red carpet premiere in London on September 14th 2011. The event was attended by director Shawn Levy and star Hugh Jackman who introduced the movie, setting it up as a classic underdog sports story. Jackman even gave a shout out to the Norwich football team (known as the canaries) who were promoted to the English Premier League that season.

I didn’t have particulalry high hopes for the film as boxing robots did not seem like a promising set up. I’m not a fan of the recent Transformers films and imagined this could be an attempt to piggy back on that series success. However whilst I wouldn’t say Real Steel is a total success it does provide reasonably engaging entertainment. The story will be very familiar to anyone who has seen the Stallone vehicle of the 80s Over The Top, just replace the arm wrestling with robot boxing. Like Over The Top, the story centres on a working class guy, just trying to makes ends meet, when his estranged son enters his life. Wealthly extended family frown on the relationship believing they can offer the boy a better life, will these fathers with  unusual sporting interests prove themselves adequate parents over the course of the film?

I find it interesting that both films involve simlar class dynamics, though I’m not convinced they are used for anything more than a simplistic short hand to further establish the father characters underdog status.

Hugh Jackman provides a lot of energy and is a charimatic lead, the special effects work well, and the film manages to find a balance between the growing relationship between father and son and the robot boxing. I could see the film being good family viewing, engaging for the kids and passable for the adults.

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55th BFI London Film Festival

The BFI London Film Festival for 2011 kicked off last October and once again I struggled with the online booking system and my calendar to get to as many films as I was able. As always it was a fantastic event for film lovers with a wide range of films from all over the world, numerous introductions and Q&As with the filmmakers, and red carpet glitz.

I managed to take in a good selection this year though I didn’t feel the films I saw maintained as high a standard as 2010. That years Of Gods and Men still ranks among my most memorable film festival experiences, as does The White Ribbon. Nothing this year ranked as highly for me as those two. Below are some brief thoughts on the films I saw this year. None stand out as obvious favorites though The Descendents, Martha Marcy May Malene, and 50/50 all rank highly.


Alps – Director Giorgos Lanthimos made a splash with his previous film, Dogtooth, winning the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. Although I have not yet seen Dogtooth I was aware of it’s success and was therefore excited by the prospect of checking out the directors follow up. Alps certainly has an interesting premise involving a group of suspect characters “performing” the roles of relatives and friends who have recently passed away. The film raises questions of identity and grief, and demonstrates a strong control of tone and style. Unfortunately it left me unengaged. Acting is stilted, which appears to be purposeful though to what purpose I am unsure. I found it difficult to relate to anyone in the film which was not aided by an awkward acting style. There is also not a great deal of plot, preferring to concentrate on character and feeling. There is little information provided about the group and what their motivations are. A Q&A with the writer and director after the screening was also not particularly illuminating with the director appearing to take a stance of – “I made the film I wanted now you must interpret the film as you wish”. This film is unlikely to appeal to wide audiences and I found little to reccomend it.

The DescendantsThe Descendants – I have enjoyed every Alexander Payne film I have seen (admittedly he has not made many). The style of his films remind me a little of the Coen brothers. Both populate their films with great characters and create worlds that I find a pleasure to spend time in. George Clooney is usually fun but sometimes a little too fun, being amusing but failing to create characters I have any belief in. Does Clooney deliver his best here and does Payne continue his winning run? I would have say yes on both counts. The Descendants is a thoroughly enjoyable film. It mixes humour and pathos very well. In addition to Clooney I enjoyed the performance of Shailene Woodley and found Robert Forster to be very entertaining. Overall highly reccomended, one of the best I saw at the festival.

Take ShelterTake Shelter – Michael Shannon is an actor who appears to have rapidly gone from unknown to this leading role, first popping up on my radar in 2006 with Bug. He does a great job here playing a man struggling with unusual visions, well aware of the strangeness of his behaviour. It is really quite gripping, surprisingly scary at times, but ultimately left me feeling a bit empty. It has a divisive ending which I did not find wholly satisfying. The build up is worth the trip however and it feels like a film for our times, taking in the economic climate and a sense of unease about the future.


The Deep Blue SeaThe Deep Blue Sea – Critic Mark Kermode loved director Terence Davies’ Of Time and The City and named it the best film of 2008. I never caught it myself but it certainly sounded unusual. A 72 minute documentary narrated by the director touching on his personal recollections of Liverpool. The Deep Blue Sea is a return to more traditional narrative filmmaking. Based on Terence Rattigan’s play of the same name the film stars Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale. Set in around 1950 the story focuses on Hester, the young wife of a high court judge, whose life is thrown into disarray by an affair and with a troubled pilot. There are some great elements on show here. Terrific cinematography, strong performances, and a real sense of time and place. However I felt these were undone by a feeling of “stagey-ness” and deliberate pacing. I wasn’t caught up in the drama as I felt I should be.

ShameShame – Like The Deep Blue Sea, Shame features some great elements but I didn’t feel it came together successfully. It’s a film with real visual style, individual scenes that work very well, and committed performances. I’m just not sure it all adds up to much. We are presented with troubled characters, and the impact of their troubles is delved into a little, we just never get enough detail to build a rounded portrait. Motivations are left oblique. It is also arguable how much progress the characters make in dealing with their predicament as the ending is left to interpretation though I did feel it leaned in a particular direction and at least prompted further thought. Overall somewhat unsatisfying though not without merit.

Martha Marcy May MarleneMartha Marcy May Marlene – A gripping story of a young womens attempts to escape the clutches of a cult-like commune and it’s frigtening leader. The performances from Elizabeth Olsen abd John Hawkes are great and the atmosphere is terriffic. I was frequently on the edge of my seat. Turning into a bit of a festival theme (following Take Shelter and Shame) it was another film which ended on a question mark rather than a full stop. I could see many audiences members feeling unsatisfied but I felt it worked in the context of the story.



I also enjoyed the post Martha Marcy screening Q&A with writer/director Sean Durkin and stars John Hawkes and Elisbeth Olsen. Olsen especially provided some very good answers to our queries. She had very clear ideas on the character and did an exceptional job of describing this to us. If she brings the same intensity and talent to all her roles we can look found to some great performances in the future.

50/50 – Thoroughly enjoyed it. Hits a good balance of comedy and drama. Emotional without feeling too manipulative. You couldn’t say the role is really a stretch for Seth Rogen but he plays it very well and I found it to be his most affecting character. Likewise Joseph Gorden Levitt does a great job and it building an impressive filmography following successes like Brick, 500 Days of Summer, and Inception. I have seen some criticism of the films treatment of its female characters, Bryce Dallas Howard plays the most unlikeable character however I felt the film benefitted from the perspective the character brought and introduced a conflict that added to the drama. I also felt that Anna Kendrick provided a suitable counterpoint. In addition Anjelica Huston, playing Gordon Levitt’s mother, offers a very sympathetic character. I appreciated the introduction from writer Will Reiser at the screening, he added to the back story of the film, reflecting on its factual basis and it was great to see Anna Kendrick. Post screening I found out that the festival had played the film simultaneously in multiple cinemas, one of which was also treated to a Q&A with Reiser, Rogen, and Kendrick afterwards. It was unfortunate that I was not able to see this.

The Ides of March – A good “Hollywood” drama with the star power of Clooney and Gosling (what a year he had!) and critical favorites Seymour Hoffman and Giamatti. What could go wrong? Happily not a great deal as the film does a pretty good job of delving into the political intrigue of a Democratic primary race and the corruption it breeds. It does feel a little contrived at times and wraps up its loose ends a little too neatly but on the whole it works rather well and walks the line of setting its action amongst political processes without involving too much partisan politicing. Enjoyable.

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Drive appears to be prompting a bit of conversation at the moment. The film premiered in Canne to a great response and the hype steadily built. Critical consensus seemed to be that it was a near masterpiece with style to burn and fantastic performances from all of it’s actors. Ryan Gosling’s associated rise to stardom, from Oscar nomination a couple of years ago for Half Nelson to critical success with Blue Valentine and popular success with films like Crazy Stupid Love, also helped Drive’s cause as it rode this wave of press.

Now that the film has been given a wider seen release we have seen that the film just doesn’t seem to connect with a large audience and there has been a growing contingent of critics raising questions about the films quality. Perhaps without the Cannes hype, had the early word been a little more muted, the film might have never been expected to be a hit and it would have found a small but dedicated following. Instead expectations seem to have been sky high.

Scott Mendelson of Mendelson’s Memos was one critic who felt the film offered little substance and called it “boring, uninteresting, and audience-insulting”. He goes on to say it plays “…to the barest adolescent fantasies in a manner befitting a high school short story.”

Mendelson’s review, along with others, prompted a discussion between Thomas Rogers, editor of Salon, and Andrew O’Hehir, film critic of Salon, “The Drive backlash: Too violent, too arty, or both?”.

I find it a fascinating situation as the film really crosses genre boundaries making it difficult to market. In addition, the films deliberate pacing and emphasis on tone and style make it less accessible than typical genre fare. I believe the hype, along with the marketing campaign which pushed its action/thriller elements, has been responsible for a lot of the backlash.

Personally I disagree with the critics who feel Ryan Gosling is presented in a heroic fashion and that the violence is excessive. I feel one of the films great strengths and the root of it’s interest is the fact that Gosling is so quickly reduced to a figure of horror. The violence assists in this process as it makes shockingly clear how terrifying he is. Far from being heroic, glamourous, or exciting it is disgusting and offputing. I believe the film is subverting traditional generic elements in order to question their very existence.

To my mind it is closer to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games than the “adolescent fantasies” of a “high school story”. Though many critics also dislike Funny Games and some feel it is similarly excessive. I appreciate both films for their commentary on the medium, I find them though provoking and challenging.

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